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Big aftershock rattles Japan disaster zone

08 april 2011, 10:24
A powerful aftershock rocked Japan's tsunami disaster zone, killing at least three and triggering new concerns over nuclear power plants in a region still grappling with an atomic emergency, AFP reports.

Electricity was cut across a huge area of northern Japan, forcing cooling systems at three nuclear plants to switch to emergency power and plunging more than 3.3 million households into darkness late Thursday night.

At least one back-up supply remained online at all three plants, but the aftershock highlighted the potential risks of nuclear generation in an earthquake zone amid a battle to stabilise reactors at tsunami-hit Fukushima.

National broadcaster NHK said a total of three people had been killed by the 7.1 magnitude tremor -- one of the most powerful to hit Japan since the country's worst post-war disaster nearly four weeks ago.

The Japanese Meteorological Agency immediately issued a tsunami alert, warning two-metre (six-feet) high waves could hit an area where much of the coastline still lies in ruins from the March 11 catastrophe.

The alert, which had sent people fleeing to higher ground, was withdrawn 83 minutes after the 11:32 pm (1432 GMT) quake, but set already frayed nerves on edge.

In the town of Kitakami, northwest of Thursday night's epicentre, an AFP reporter witnessed queues forming at convenience stores as people tried to stock up anew on food, water and batteries.

"It was so scary," said Kazuyuki Shiroiwa, who had been to four shops in central Kitakami in a vain effort to find batteries.

"The midnight quake reminded me of the fear I felt a month ago," he said. "I'm fed up with earthquakes. No more quakes, please."

The Fire and Disaster Management Agency said a 63-year-old woman in Yamagata prefecture died after her home respirator failed when the power was knocked out.

The agency said one person also died in Miyagi prefecture -- the area worst hit by the 9.0 magnitude quake of March 11 and the towering tsunami it spawned.

It said at least 93 people were confirmed injured as of Friday morning. Jiji Press put the number at around 130.

The US Geological Survey said the 7.1 aftershock's epicentre was under the sea 66 kilometres (40 miles) east of Sendai, a city severely affected by the March 11 disaster.

It swayed buildings in the capital Tokyo, more than 300 kilometres away.

Workers battling to control the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on the northeast coast were temporarily ordered to evacuate, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) said.

The evacuation order came less than 24 hours after they began pumping nitrogen, an inert gas, into reactor No. 1, where engineers were concerned a build-up of hydrogen might react with oxygen to cause an explosion.

Work at the plant was remotely controlled and had continued uninterrupted, the company said, with a spokesman adding that there was "no information immediately indicating any abnormality at Fukushima Daiichi plant".

A nuclear safety agency official told reporters: "There are no abnormal readings at the Fukushima Daiichi's monitoring posts." He added: "We have not seen any problem... with regard to the injection of nitrogen."

An official from the nuclear safety agency said some external power sources used for cooling had been lost at plants in Onagawa in Miyagi prefecture and at Rokkasho and Higashidori in Aomori prefecture, but at least one emergency source remained operational at each.

The loss of external power sources at Fukushima in the March 11 tsunami left reactor cores heating up uncontrollably, resulting in the world's worst nuclear emergency since Chernobyl 25 years ago.

There was no indication that the loss of regular power was causing a problem to any of the plants.

Operator Tohoku Electric Power said at the Onagawa plant, some water overflowed from pools housing spent fuel and spilled on the floor, but added radiation levels remained normal.

Hundreds of aftershocks have rocked Japan since the 9.0 magnitude quake last month and the resulting tsunami, which killed 12,500 people and left around 15,000 unaccounted for.

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