Soldiers and officials in northeastern Japan are warning residents that the area could be hit by another tsunami and are ordering residents to higher ground.

Sirens around the town of Soma went off late his morning Japan time and public address systems ordered residents to higher ground.  Kyodo News Agency said the tsunami could be 3 metres high, citing Fukushima prefectural officials.  An Associated Press reporter stood about 100 metres from the coast.  The area was hit by a massive quake and tsunami on Friday.

590,000 people flee disaster zone

The Japanese government estimates more than 46,000 homes and buildings have been damaged by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan on Friday.  And it says 5,700 of those structures collapsed in the 9.0 magnitude quake or were washed away by the tsunami.

The United Nations says a total of 590,000 people had been evacuated in the quake and tsunami disaster, including 210,000 living near the Fukushima nuclear plants.

Worst crisis since WWII

The country is also battling a feared meltdown of two reactors at a quake-hit nuclear plant, as the full horror began emerging of the disaster on the ravaged northeast coast where more than 10,000 were feared dead.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the situation at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi power plant remained grave, and that Japan was facing its worst crisis since the end of World War II – which left the defeated country in ruins.

“The current situation of the earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear plants is in a way the most severe crisis in the 65 years since World War II,” Kan said in a televised national address.

“Whether we Japanese can overcome this crisis depends on each of us,” said the premier, who was wearing an emergency services suit.”

Kan said the shutdown of reactors across the quake zone would entail rolling power outages nationwide, and urged citizens to conserve energy. Japan’s nuclear industry provides about a third of its power needs.

Nuclear crisis

While four nuclear plants in northeastern Japan have reported damage, the danger appeared to be greatest at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, where one explosion occurred Saturday and a second was feared. Operators have lost the ability to cool three reactors at Daiichi and three more at another nearby complex using usual procedures, after the quake knocked out power and the tsunami swamped backup generators.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said overnight that a hydrogen explosion could occur at Daiichi’s Unit 3, the latest reactor to face a possible meltdown. That would follow a hydrogen blast Saturday in the plant’s Unit 1.

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

Operators have been dumping seawater into units 1 and 3 in a last-ditch measure to cool the reactors. They were getting water into the other four reactors with cooling problems without resorting to corrosive sea water, which likely makes the reactors unusable.

Edano said residents within about 20 kilometres of the Daiichi plant were ordered to evacuate as a precaution, and the radioactivity released into the environment so far was so small it didn’t pose any health threats.

Up to 160 people, including 60 elderly patients and medical staff who had been waiting for evacuation in the nearby town of Futabe, and 100 others evacuating by bus, might have been exposed to radiation, said Ryo Miyake, a spokesman from Japan’s nuclear agency.

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