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Unpredictable threat looming over Japan

18 march 2011, 14:07
Japan's earthquake-battered economy faces a new and unpredictable threat from a deepening nuclear crisis and power blackouts that analysts say could hinder a recovery from the disaster, AFP reports.

The 9.0-magnitude tremor and killer tsunami which struck on March 11 are feared to have caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage to the world's third-largest economy, although the full impact is still far from clear.

The fear is that a full-blown nuclear catastrophe would have long-lasting effects on the economy, particularly consumer sentiment and food exports. The calamity has already taken a heavy toll on the industrial sector, with corporate titans such as Toyota and Sony suspending factory output.

Electricity blackouts could also lead to prolonged disruption to production of cars, flat-screen televisions and electronic gadgets key to Japanese growth.

"The big uncertainty about this disaster is that roughly 10 percent of electricity generation capacity (both nuclear and coal) may be off line for a few months, until oil- and gas-fired plants can ramp up," said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at US consultancy firm IHS.

The capital's usually teeming streets were quiet Friday, although some residents headed to work as usual. "This town has become so lonesome at night, as many stores keep the lights off and close early," said Shin Fujii, who runs a Spanish restaurant where custom has slowed to just a few diners a day.

Another major concern, the strength of the yen, which Tokyo has blamed on speculators betting on an influx of funds for reconstruction efforts, could set back a recovery in Japan's key export sector, although it will also make imports cheaper.

Global concerns remain focused on the crippled Fukushima No.1 plant, 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Tokyo and the fear that the earthquake and tsunami could be followed by a massive radiation leak.

Those fears have triggered an exodus of foreign nationals, particularly after Britain, France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand advised their citizens to leave Tokyo as well as the northeast region.

The United States announced it was boosting radiation monitoring on the west coast and Pacific territories, as it seeks to allay public concern about radiation from Japan.

The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the situation had not worsened "significantly" over the past 24 hours but warned it would be premature to talk about a ray of hope.

At the Fukushima plant itself, disaster teams managed to get a power line onto the site in an effort to reactivate crucial water pumps to cool overheating reactors and prevent a calamitous meltdown.

The official number of dead and missing after the twin disasters which hit a week ago has risen to 16,600, with 6,405 confirmed dead, police said Friday. The steadily increasing toll is expected to rise much higher.

Half a million people made homeless when the monster waves razed Japan's northeast coast were suffering in appalling conditions, struggling to stay warm in freezing temperatures and with scant supplies of food and fuel.

"We're already seeing families huddling around gas fires for warmth. In these sorts of temperatures, young children are vulnerable to chest infections and flu," Save the Children's Steve McDonald said, estimating the disaster had left 100,000 children homeless.

Humanitarian aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said that with over half a million people in shelters, the EU stood "ready to provide any help" in the face of requests for blankets, mattresses, water, water tanks, food and tents.

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