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Earthquakes hit Japan's coast

TOKYO — TOKYO -- Nine elderly people were crushed to death in an earthquake yesterday off Japan's north coast, a powerful undersea shudder that left 900 others injured while flattening dozens of houses, tearing up highways and causing a small amount of radioactive water to leak from the world's largest nuclear power station into the Sea of Japan.

The radioactive leak, which the nuclear plant's owners said posed no health threat but took several hours to discover and report to the public, brought a flurry of criticism.

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, embroiled in closely contested elections for Japan's upper house on Aug. 29, said the company had taken too long to account for the leak and ordered it to review safety procedures. Japan's nuclear industry, which operates 55 plants atop some of the earth's most volatile tectonic plates, has a history of covering up accidents.

Rescue workers were still sawing through piles of debris early today, searching for survivors. The strength of the quake was estimated at 6.8 on the Richter scale when it hit at 10:13 a.m. on a national holiday.

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It struck in a largely rural region of Niigata and Northern Nagano prefectures where many older houses are made of wood or lightly reinforced concrete. The traditional buildings proved no match for the soft, shifting ground. Several schools and community centers that had been designated as emergency shelters were also damaged.

Aftershocks rippled through the region and a second strong quake, also located under the sea bed offshore but believed to be unrelated to the first tremor, roiled Niigata prefecture 13 hours later. It was estimated at 6.6 in intensity and gently shook buildings in Tokyo, about 145 miles from the northern coast. No injuries from the second quake were initially reported.

Abe's government sought to offer a swift response to yesterday's quake, dispatching 450 soldiers from its Ground Self-Defense Force to deliver emergency rations to the roughly 12,000 people left homeless when their houses collapsed or were badly damaged.

Abe's governing party has been wounded by criticism of the floundering rescue efforts in October 2004, when a similar-magnitude earthquake hit the Niigata region, leaving 67 people dead and 4,805 injured. And it has been blamed for the fact that some of those left homeless in that quake still linger in temporary housing.

Yesterday's tremor occurred about 10 miles under the sea bed, just 6 miles out to sea. It buckled highways and bridges along the coast, bent railway lines and hammered buildings in municipalities along the coast. Among the worst hit was the small city of Kashiwazaki, where television footage showed pancaked homes with crumpled roofs and a local rail line buried under soil from a landslide.

But the most unnerving scenes came from the nearby Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, where a fire broke out in an electrical transformer, spewing black soot into the sky for two hours before being brought under control. Built in 1985 under now-outdated earthquake protection guidelines, the plant's seven reactors give it more production capacity than any other reactor in the world, according to its owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Company officials said four of the seven reactors were operating, or about to operate, when the earthquake hit, and that seismic activity detectors worked properly and shut down the plant as required.

But the power station lacked the proper equipment to extinguish the chemical fire and had to await outside help. After initially denying any radioactive leaks occurred, company officials acknowledged several hours later that a small amount of coolant containing radioactive content had spilled from one reactor.

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The company said the amount of radioactive material in the water was minuscule, and posed no health risk. But anti-nuclear activists remained suspicious, citing the industry's history of falsified safety data and hidden accidents.

"We're not sure if the company has revealed all or if they are still hiding something," said Hideyuki Ban of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo. "This could have been worse. The company was not prepared to fight the fire. And that region has now had several earthquakes stronger than what the government has said we could expect. ... In this case, we were just lucky."

Bruce Wallace writes for the Los Angeles Times.


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