, FUKUSHIMA, Japan, Mar 13 – Japan battled a feared meltdown of two reactors at a quake-hit nuclear plant Sunday, as the full horror of the disaster emerged on the ravaged northeast coast with thousands feared dead.
An explosion at the ageing Fukushima atomic plant blew off the roof and walls around one of its reactors Saturday, a day after the biggest quake ever recorded in Japan unleashed a monster 10-metre (33-foot) tsunami.
The atomic emergency widened Sunday as the cooling systems vital for preventing overheating failed at a second reactor. In a nightmare scenario, back-up generators were disabled by tsunami flooding.
Asked whether meltdowns had occurred, Japan\’s top government spokesman Yukio Edano said: "We are acting on the assumption that there is a high possibility that one has occurred" in the plant\’s number-one reactor.
"As for the number-three reactor, we are acting on the assumption that it is possible," he said of the plant situated 250 kilometres (160 miles) northeast of Tokyo.
Edano said some radiation had escaped, but that the levels released into the air had so far not reached levels high enough to affect human health.
The colossal 8.9-magnitude tremor sent waves of mud and debris racing over towns and farming land in Japan\’s northeast, destroying all before it and leaving the coast a swampy wasteland.
In the small port town of Minamisanriku alone some 10,000 people were unaccounted for — more than half the population — public broadcaster NHK reported.
As the world\’s third-largest economy struggled to assess the full extent of what Prime Minister Naoto Kan called an "unprecedented national disaster", groups of hundreds of bodies were being found along the shattered coastline.
"We have received a preliminary report that more than 200 bodies were found in the city of Higashimatsushima," a National Police Agency spokesman said in the latest find on Sunday.
Edano said at least 1,000 people were believed to have lost their lives, and police said more than 215,000 people were huddled in emergency shelters.
In the city of Fukushima, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) northwest of the stricken plant, AFP reporters saw panic buying at supermarkets and said petrol stations had run dry.
In Minamisoma town, which was virtually obliterated by the tsunami\’s black tide of mud and debris, an AFP reporter saw fire volunteers collecting bodies found in the twisted wreckage of what had once been a residential area.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said about 200,000 people had so far been evacuated from the area around the two Fukushima plants that house a total of 10 reactors.
Japan\’s nuclear safety agency rated the incident at four on the international scale of zero to seven. The 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States was rated five, while the 1986 Chernobyl disaster was a seven.
After Saturday\’s blast, which sent smoke billowing into the sky, the government moved to calm growing fears, saying the explosion did not rupture the container surrounding the reactor itself.
Workers doused the stricken No.1 reactor with sea water to try to avert catastrophe, in what US experts warned was an "act of desperation" that, in the worst-case scenario, could foreshadow a much more serious disaster.
The plant\’s operator said that so much water had evaporated from the number-three reactor that at one stage the top three metres (10 feet) of the fuel rods were exposed to the air, although they were later covered again.
Japan\’s ambassador to the United States Ichiro Fujisaki told CNN: "There was a partial melt of a fuel rod, melting of fuel rod. There was a part of that… but it was nothing like a whole reactor melting down."
A total of 22 people have also been hospitalised after being exposed to radioactivity, although it was not immediately clear to what degree they were exposed and what condition they were in.
Japan committed 100,000 troops — about 40 percent of the armed forces — to spearhead a mammoth rescue and recovery effort with hundreds of ships, aircraft and vehicles headed to the Pacific coast area.
"There are so many people who are still isolated and waiting for assistance. This reality is very stark," Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.
The world rallied behind the disaster-stricken nation, with offers of help even from Japan\’s traditional rivals. Despite a territorial row that has soured relations, China sent a team of rescuers who were due to arrive later Sunday.
The United States, which has nearly 50,000 military personnel in Japan, ordered a flotilla including two aircraft carriers and support ships to the region to provide aid, the first of which arrived Sunday.
The massive earthquake, one of the largest in recorded history, appears to have shifted the main Japanese island by about eight feet (2.4 meters), the US Geological Survey said.
Two days after it struck about 400 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, aftershocks were still rattling the region, including a strong 6.8 magnitude tremor on Saturday and a 6.3 quake on Sunday.
Japan sits on the "Pacific Ring of Fire", and Tokyo is in one of its most dangerous areas, where three continental plates are slowly grinding against each other, building up enormous seismic pressure.
The government has long warned of the likelihood that a devastating magnitude eight quake would strike within the next 30 years in the Kanto plains, home to Tokyo\’s vast urban sprawl.