TOKYO—Steeped in uncertainty, but striving to calm its people, the Japanese government struggled Monday to come to grips with the enormity of a national emergency that continues to grow.
As the death toll from Friday’s earthquake and tsunami soared to 10,000 and more than 300,000 were evacuated from nuclear plant areas, the government confirmed it was battling two nuclear emergencies at its Fukushima complex, 240 kilometres north of Tokyo, and a third in Ibaraki prefecture.
A new explosion was reported Monday morning at the Fukushima plant, further escalating concerns about the crisis. TV footage showed a massive column of smoke belching from the plant’s No. 3 unit. Officials said it could be a hydrogen explosion similar to an earlier one at a different unit in the facility.
Seven people are missing and three were hurt in the latest blast.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan insisted that Japan was not facing a challenge like the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. But at the same time, he said his country was staring down its greatest test in modern times.
“The earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear incident have been the biggest crises Japan has encountered in the 65 years since the end of World War II,” Kan told reporters.
The government said it would send 100,000 troops into the affected region to assist in rescue efforts after a powerful tsunami struck northeast Japan on Friday, wiping out entire villages.
But as the emergency continues to mount, there is a growing sense here, born of a dearth of information, that Japan might be sailing into uncharted waters.
The country’s famously aggressive media have been frustrated by an inability to get clear answers from the government.
“Even now, we don’t know what’s really going on,” Takashi Oshima, a respected journalist from Tokyo’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper, told the Star. “We really have no idea how many people have died. It’s scary.
“My kids called from New York and asked me, ‘How many died, Dad?’ And I had to say, ‘I don’t know. Maybe 10,000, 20,000, 30,000?’
A senior government official acknowledged Sunday that gauges on at least one nuclear reactor that engineers are working feverishly to cool, using seawater, are not functional — a strong indication that the government might have no reliable means of measuring the effectiveness of its efforts.
Reports say that the cooling process could take as long as 10 days. If they fail, the containers that house the reactors’ cores could melt, or even explode, releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere.
Sunday and into Monday morning, Tokyo’s skyscrapers swayed and furniture trembled intermittently through the night as aftershocks continued.
Some experts warned that there could be more earthquakes on the way. Yuji Yagi, an associate professor at the University of Tsukuba, said a mega-earthquake like the one that struck Friday could trigger other earthquakes at faults that are already on the brink.
The government’s nuclear program is expected to face sharp criticism, especially since Fukushima’s No. 1 reactor, where the roof was ripped off in an explosion Saturday, is 40 years old and was to be decommissioned this month. Instead, the government recently extended its operating licence by 10 years.
That revelation is sure to heighten the impression that authorities were ill prepared for such a massive quake and the threat it could pose to the country’s nuclear industry.
A Japanese official confirmed that 22 people have suffered radiation contamination and up to 190 may have been exposed. Workers in protective clothing used handheld scanners to check people arriving at evacuation centres.
One worker was reported to have died while working in a nuclear plant’s shaft during the emergency.
“This is not a serious public health issue at the moment,” Malcolm Crick, secretary of the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, told Reuters.
“It won’t be anything like Chernobyl. There the reactor was operating at full power when it exploded and it had no containment,” he said.
In the roughly 72 hours since the quake struck, fears about the situation in Japan have spread: France advised its citizens to leave the country Sunday. The U.S. warned its nationals to avoid travelling to Japan. Canada is telling its citizens to be careful in Tokyo and to avoid travel to the area of Fukushima.
Here in Japan, where television screens have been filled with images of death and survival, the agony of Etsuko Koyama was perhaps most poignant.
In Rikuzentakata, a port city of more than 20,000 obliterated by the tsunami, Koyama tearfully explained how she escaped water rushing through her home Friday, but lost grip of her daughter’s hand. She has yet to find her.
“I haven’t given up hope yet,” Koyama told public broadcaster NHK, speaking haltingly and wiping away tears. “I saved myself, but I couldn’t save my daughter.”
Other reports showed rescuers pulling bodies from mud-covered jumbles of wrecked houses, shattered tree trunks, twisted cars and tangled power lines while survivors examined ruined remains nearby.
While two million households are already without electricity — and 1.4 million without running water — the government said it would begin rotating blackouts Monday across eastern Japan, including Tokyo.
Still, the world’s third-largest economy will open for business on Monday, badly wounded, but bolstered by an international humanitarian effort of epic proportions.
The Bank of Japan said that it would make all funds available to ensure the economy could recover.
On Sunday, Japanese officials raised their estimate of the quake’s magnitude to 9.0, a notch above the U.S. Geological Survey’s reading of 8.9.
In what some might see as another troubling omen, a volcano on the southern island of Kyushu, hundreds of kilometres from the quake’s epicentre, resumed spewing ash and rock Sunday after weeks of quiet.