Japan Quake Victims Take Shelter, Mudslides Feared

More than 12,000 people took refuge in evacuation centres in northwest Japan on Tuesday after an earthquake the previous day flattened homes, killing nine people and injuring more than 1,000, and triggered a leak of contaminated water from a nuclear plant.

Published 17 July 2007
More than 12,000 people took refuge in evacuation centres in northwest Japan on Tuesday after an earthquake the previous day flattened homes, killing nine people and injuring more than 1,000, and triggered a leak of contaminated water from a nuclear plant.

As aftershocks continued, forecasts for wet weather raised fears of mudslides that could add to the devastation.

Water, gas and electricity supplies were cut by the 6.8 magnitude quake that hit Niigata prefecture on Monday morning, also causing a radiation leak and fire at the world's biggest nuclear plant.

"I'm worried because I don't know how long this is going to continue. What we need is electricity, water and gas back," said Ichiro Yoneyama, 66, a boat instructor who visited an evacuation centre with his young grandchildren to get food. "Neighbours are helping one another, but there's only so much we can do."

Nine elderly people were killed and one person was missing, a Niigata prefecture official said.

A small fire and a leak of 1,200 litres (317 U.S. gallons) of water containing radioactive materials at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s (TEPCO) Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant -- the world's largest -- reignited fears about nuclear safety in a country reliant on atomic power for one-third of its electricity.

With 342 houses destroyed and about 430 damaged in Niigata prefecture alone, according to officials, it was unclear when people could go home. Worries were mounting about the health of evacuees, many of whom are elderly.

"The damage was worse than anticipated," Kashiwazaki Mayor Hiroshi Kaeda told reporters. "If we can restore water services more people can go home, so that's what we want to do first."

Streets in Kashiwazaki were lined with damaged or collapsed houses, mostly wooden structures with heavy tile roofs, and many roads were blocked because of cracks, causing traffic jams.

Some people worked on repairs, covering damaged roofs with blue plastic sheets, others picked through scattered rubble. Across the street from one evacuation centre was a temple building crushed by the quake and a cemetery with fallen stone lanterns.

RICE BALLS AND WATER

Residents lined up holding plastic bottles for fresh water, which was trucked in by local officials and a contingent of about 500 members of the armed forces.

The navy shipped in emergency rations and helmeted soldiers in camouflage uniforms made rice balls to hand out at evacuation centres, where crowds huddled sitting on "tatami" straw mats with blankets and a few belongings.

Authorities warned residents taking shelter in cars of the dangers of falling ill from blood clots due to immobility, the "economy class syndrome" that killed many in a 2004 quake that hit a nearby district and left 65 dead.

The quake halted gas service to about 35,000 homes and disrupted the water supply to all of Kashiwazaki, a city with a population of around 95,000 whose economy relies on nuclear power generation and fishing. More than 25,000 homes and other places were without electricity, public broadcaster NHK said.

TEPCO initially said there had been no radiation leak, but late on Monday said water containing radioactive materials had leaked from a unit at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant.

Contaminated water reached the sea but had no effect on the environment, the company said, adding that the quake was stronger than its reactors had been designed to withstand.

A fire in an electricity transformer at the plant was quickly extinguished but it was unclear when power units could restart after the trade minister said safety must first be ensured.

Media and residents urged the nuclear industry to take heed.

Retired taxi driver Tomiji Okura, 72, said the nuclear industry had boosted his business but reactors had to be able to withstand earthquakes. "When you have something like this, it's scary. I want them to be made safe," he said.

FACTORIES AFFECTED

Factories in the mostly rural district halted production to inspect for damage, and it was unclear when some would resume output. Sanyo Electric Co. said it aimed to resume operations at its computer chip factory in Ojiya city on Tuesday.

Japan is one of the world's most earthquake-prone countries, with a tremor occurring at least every five minutes.

Niigata was hit in October 2004 by a quake with a matching magnitude of 6.8 that killed 65 people and injured more than 3,000. It was the deadliest quake in Japan since a magnitude 7.3 tremor hit Kobe city in 1995, killing more than 6,400.

"My house is still standing, but inside it's a complete mess. The tiles have fallen off the walls," said Shigeru Yokota, 27, an electrical repair worker.

"This happened three years ago as well. It's rubbing salt in the wound."


(By George Nishiyama, with additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds, Masayuki Kitano, and Linda Sieg)

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