TOKYO – A powerful undersea earthquake off Japan’s Fukushima region, where a tsunami a decade ago triggered one of the worst nuclear plant disasters in history, has shaken moved buildings for more than two minutes on Wednesday night.
Then the wait begins.
Immediately after the earthquake struck at 11:36 p.m., the Japan Meteorological Agency issued a tsunami warning for Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures, and thousands of residents, many of whom only remember very well. about the devastation in 2011, evacuated.
“Please put out all fires,” officials in the city of Minamisoma, in Fukushima, told residents as they urge them to a safer land. “Please listen to TV and radio and act calmly and appropriately.”
Hours later, the warnings were lifted.
Several small tsunamis measuring about 20 centimeters (8 inches) in height were reported in the two communities, but they were one-fifth the size predicted – and very small compared to the 45-foot wave that passed. devastated the area in 2011. More than 19,000 people died in that disaster.
Shelly Reid, an employee at Minamisoma City Hall, said: “In many areas, there are a lot of things that are thrown all over the place, like records and everything. “Some roads have been damaged, especially along the coast. There have been several landslides. ”
At least three people were confirmed dead following Wednesday’s quake, with more than 190 injured.
The quake had a magnitude of 7.4 – strong enough to cause severe structural damage – but the 9-magnitude Tohoku earthquake that caused the 2011 tsunami was hundreds of times stronger. The epicenter of Wednesday’s quake was 20 miles off the east coast of Japan, and about 35 miles from the sea.
“We don’t usually see a destructive tsunami until you get to about 7.5,” said Don Blakeman, a geophysicist with the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo.
But damage reports were still coming in early Thursday morning, and the quake, which could be felt in Tokyo, nearly 200 miles away, not only rattled nerves in a country many have waited for. waiting for the earth under their feet to move again at any moment.
Two million people lost power, if only for a short time, and fire departments were called in to rescue passengers trapped in elevators. A bullet train carrying about 100 people between Fukushima and Shiroshizaou stations derailed, although there were no reports of injuries. And commuters on subway trains posted videos of cars swaying as they passed through the tunnels.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the country’s Self-Defense Forces had been mobilized to assess the damage.
“We are still trying to understand the situation and gather information,” he said at a news conference. “The government will work together to save lives and make every effort to provide safety and provide accurate information.”
The magnitude of the quake was on par with the 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people. The difference is its depth under the sea.
Many Japanese people note that the earthquake occurred just 5 days after the country celebrated the 11th anniversary of the Fukushima disaster.
“Another major earthquake in Tohoku,” said Aiko Sawada, a retired medical researcher, wrote on Twitter. “And right after the 3.11 anniversary. I pray that the damage remains minimal. ”
After the 2011 earthquake, one of the strongest earthquakes ever measured, the tsunami broke through the protective sea walls of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and flooded the plant, resulting in a meltdown. of three reactors.
On Thursday, Japanese officials set out to inspect nuclear plants in the area shortly after the quake struck. They said they found no abnormalities at the Fukushima plants; in Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture; or in Tokai in Ibaraki Prefecture.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company said that a fire alarm went off at one of the reactors of the defunct Fukushima Daiichi plant. The factory has been cleaned up a lot since the disaster 11 years ago.
And the water pumps for the spent fuel cooling tanks at a separate power plant in Fukushima were shut down early Thursday, but Tokyo Electric said there was still water in the tanks and Both pumps were back up and running before 2 a.m., according to NHK. public television station.
The tsunami that crippled the plant left Japan with a formidable challenge: How can an earthquake-and-tsunami island nation dotted with nuclear reactors protect from a catastrophic disaster? another disaster?
To quell lingering concerns, Japan’s nuclear regulators have in recent years ordered the implementation of a series of new safety measures at the nation’s reactors, including wall new seawalls, flood gates and protection for the critical backup generators that power the pumps that cool the hot reactor core.
But the task is huge, and many Japanese still deeply lose faith in nuclear energy.
For example, at the Hamaoka nuclear power plant, located on the Pacific coast west of Tokyo, workers built a 72-foot-high sea wall, one of the tallest in the country, to protect three its reactor. Then there’s the bad news: Scientists working on new projections of the possibility of a tsunami in the area last year warned that waves could reach nearly 74 feet.
Hamaoka remains closed, as are many other Japanese reactors.
A decade later, nuclear power, which once provided about a third of Japan’s electricity, now accounts for only a few percent. Thirty-three reactors are capable of generating power – but only five do. The rest are in the process of testing or waiting for approval to restart.
Motoko Rich reported from Tokyo, and Eric Nagourney from New York. Report contributed by Hiroko Tabuchi and Nadav Gavrielov in New York and Thomas Fuller in San Francisco.