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Earthquake kills nine as it rattles Niigata Prefecture

Date Posted: 2007-07-18

Japan felt Mother Nature’s wrath in the form of a 6.8 magnitude earthquake Monday morning, only hours after a passing typhoon left a swath of death and destruction.

The quake registered 6 point 8 on the Richter Scale, striking at 10:13 am. The town of Kashiwazaki suffered destruction of hundreds of older homes, mostly made of wood, during the 20-second quake. A second tremor came minutes later, a 4.8 magnitude incident at 10:34 a.m.

Officials say at least nine people died in the earthquake, with another 870 injured. About 10,000 Kashiwazaki residents were evacuated to safety of other towns in Niigata Prefecture. At least 500 homes were destroyed, leading Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumi to ask for rescue and recovery help from the Ground Self Defense Forces.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe immediately went to Niigata Prefecture after the earthquake, promising help “to rebuild and help you return to normal life.” Abe had been campaigning in Nagasaki, and had been scheduled to visit Okinawa on Tuesday. He flew to the beleaguered city by helicopter, where he immediately met with evacuees being housed in an emergency shelter.

The quake jolted an electrical transformer, triggering a fire at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, forcing an automatic emergency shutdown. The No. 3 reactor is one of four at the plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. The other three were shut down as a precautionary measure. Tepco says some water containing radioactive material leaked out from the plant, but offered no further details.

Tepco spokesman Masahide Ichikawa Tuesday acknowledged another problem, telling reporters some 100 barrels containing radioactive waste had tipped over during the earthquake. “We’re investigating,” he said, “and plan to deal with it as smoothly as possible.” Lids on some of the barrels came open, possibly leaking radioactive material into the air, but Tepco’s Manabu Takeyama says “at this time there is no danger of grave effects on the environment or human health.”

The new revelation sent new ripples of concern into nuclear power opponents, who fear accidents could endanger Japanese citizens. Japan has 55 nuclear reactors that provide about 30% of the country’s energy.

Aftershocks continued for hours, but tsunami warnings issued for Sado Island and other nearby areas were canceled in a matter of minutes. Train lines were stopped for a few hours after the quake knocked a railcar off the tracks while at Kashiwazaki Station, and expressways were briefly closed while inspection teams checked them for safety. Niigata Airport quickly restarted services after suspending flights and closing the airport immediately after the earthquake.

Niigata was devastated less than three years ago by another 6.8 magnitude earthquake that killed 40 people. The most deadly earthquake to strike Japan since 1995, the October 2004 earthquake wiped out or damaged more than 4,000 homes.

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