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Thousands flee in terror as plant blast sends poison cloud across the country

THE worst fears of the Japanese people were realised as plumes of smoke and steam billowed from a nuclear power plant explosion in Fukushima, just 150 miles from Tokyo.



Japanese media reported that radioactivity had risen 20-fold in the area, from which 45,000 people had earlier been evacuated. As the country tried struggled to deal with the aftermath of its worst-ever earthquake and devastating tsunami, its authorities faced a terrifying nuclear meltdown.

The walls and roof of one building within the Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) complex were completely blown off. Tokyo fire department sent a “hyper rescue team” to the nuclear plant as winds sent smoke toward the capital. Prior to the explosion, the Japanese government was urging residents to stay calm. Experts were also playing down fears of a Chernobyl-style catastrophe.

Several other power plants in the country are also under intense observation amid fears that the crisis could deepen.

PRESSURE

Over 1,000 people are already reported to have died in the tsunami that devastated entire swathes of the country. Whole towns were washed away, at least two trainloads of people were swept to their deaths and many more people met their deaths in their homes and cars.

The 8.9 magnitude earthquake cut off power supplies and water need to cool reactors at Fukushima and the tsunami is believed to have cut off the back-up diesel generator. Pressure rose rapidly overnight, causing this morning’s explosion.

It is not yet clear how much radioactive cesium will be released into the atmosphere. Japan's nuclear agency had workers attempting to cool fuel rods at the plant and several are now understood to have been injured in the explosion. A 10km exclusion zone was put in place but tens of thousands of others were warned to stay indoors, turn off air-conditioning and not to drink tap water. According to public broadcaster NHK, the plant's exterior walls are gone and only the skeleton structure remains.

Footage on Japanese television shows white smoke billowing from the plant. People have been warned to avoid exposing their skin and cover their face with masks and wet towels if they venture outside. Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano has held a press conference asking people to remain calm.

The Government said that it was “prepared for any eventuality” as weather experts warned that further tsunamis are possible in the coming hours.

FLEEING

People in areas most at risk have been fleeing to higher ground. Thousands more have been evacuated from near a second plant, Fukushima No 2, which also suffered damage to its cooling system. A spokesman for Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Agencyearlier said atomic material had seeped out of one of the five nuclear reactors at the Daiichi plant, located north of Tokyo.

Tokyo Electric, Asia's biggest power company, had released some radioactive gas and steam into the atmosphere to reduce pressure in the containment housing. However, this was not enough to prevent the massive explosion. Weather reports in the Fukushima area suggested that some of the smoke clouds could travel towards Tokyo.

“This is extremely serious,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and an expert on national security and international policy. “The best case at this point would still be the worst incident since Chernobyl. A Japanese government spokesman said however that the damage could be limited. “We are now trying to analyse what is behind the explosion,” said Yukio Edano, stressing that people should quickly evacuate a six-mile (10km) radius. “We ask everyone to take action to secure safety.”

SPAWNED

Japanese authorities have today asked foreign nuclear experts for assistance. The trouble began at the plant's Unit 1 after yesterday's earthquake which spawned the tsunami knocked out power there.

The disaster has killed hundreds of people and devastated the country's northeastern coast, where rescuers began slowly arriving Saturday. The toll of destruction was still not known more than 24 hours after the quake since washed-out roads and shut airports have hindered access to the area. An untold number of bodies are believed to be buried in the rubble. The official death toll stood at 413, while 784 people were missing and 1,128 injured.

In addition, police said between 200 and 300 bodies were found along the coast in Sendai, the biggest city in the area near the quake's epicentre. Local media reports said at least 1,300 people may have been killed.

Meanwhile, the first wave of military rescuers began arriving by boats and helicopters.

cmcbride@herald.ie