- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2011

TOKYO | Japan grieved Sunday over its losses in the wake of a massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country Friday and triggered a nuclear-power crisis officials were still trying to deal with Monday.

The 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the worst to hit Japan, and the tsunami that followed with 30-foot-high waves may have killed as many as 10,000 people and battered a 1,300-mile stretch of coastline, wiping out whole towns and villages.

A volcano on the other side of Japan from the epicenter of the quake resumed eruptions of ash and rocks, after weeks of inactivity, Japan’s weather service said Sunday. However, officials added that the fresh eruptions at the Shinmoedake volcano may be unrelated to the earthquake.

Meanwhile, nuclear officials Sunday were scrambling to prevent a second reactor from exploding at the nuclear-power plant in Fukushima province, where a reactor exploded Saturday and neared meltdown.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said that a hydrogen explosion could occur at Unit 3 of the Fukushima complex, after a blast at a building housing a reactor the day before at Unit 1.

Attendants help a patient in a wheelchair as they evacuate a tsunami-affected hospital at Otsuchi, northeastern Japan, on Sunday, March 13, 2011, two days after a powerful 9.0-magnitude quake and a tsunami with 30-foot-high waves hit the country's northeastern coast. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)
Attendants help a patient in a wheelchair as they evacuate a tsunami-affected ... more >

“At the risk of raising further public concern, we cannot rule out the possibility of an explosion,” he said. “If there is an explosion, however, there would be no significant impact on human health.”

As Japanese authorities tried to downplay the nuclear crisis in northeastern Japan, nuclear scientists and activists here warned of dangerous scenarios if workers fail to cool the second reactor.

Masashi Goto, an engineer who formerly designed nuclear plants for Toshiba, which built the troubled reactors in Fukushima, called the crisis facing Japan an “extraordinary situation.”

“If the cooling process stops, the radiation can’t be contained anymore,” he told a panel at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan on Sunday night in Tokyo. “The government is saying reassuring words to say everything is all right. But the public needs to understand that this is beyond what the reactor was designed to withstand.”

Japan’s Kyodo News agency quoted a Fukushima government official as saying that 19 evacuees were found exposed to radiation, while 160 people — including 60 elderly hospital patients and staff — may have been contaminated. Ryo Miyake, a spokesman for Japan’s nuclear agency, confirmed that 160 people may have been exposed.

Mr. Goto said that attempts to cool nuclear rods with seawater are potentially dangerous, and he warned of a chain reaction of explosions at the 40-year old plant.

“If it’s a steam explosion, it’s comparable to a volcano erupting and lava flowing into the ocean. It’s very, very serious and frightening,” he said.

Mr. Goto was cautious not to speculate on potential damage to public health, saying only that radiation could travel beyond a 12-mile zone where the government has ordered an estimated 170,000 residents to evacuate.

“I can’t predict how long it will take for this situation to settle because nobody knows exactly what the situation is inside the reactor,” he said.

Philip White, international liaison officer of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, a group of about 10 activists originally formed by nuclear scientists in Japan, says the plant is in “a state of meltdown.”

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