SOMA, Japan - The second hydrogen explosion in three days rocked Japan's stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant Monday, sending a massive column of smoke into the air and wounding six workers. It was not immediately clear how much - if any - radiation had been released.
The explosion at the plant’s Unit 3, which authorities have been frantically trying to cool following a system failure in the wake of a massive earthquake and tsunami, triggered an order for hundreds of people to stay indoors, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.
The blast follows a similar explosion Saturday that took place at the plant’s Unit 1, which injured four workers and caused mass evacuations.
Japan’s nuclear safety agency said six workers were injured in Monday’s explosion but it was not immediately clear how or whether they were exposed to radiation. They were all conscious, said the agency’s Ryohei Shomi.
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Meanwhile, soldiers and officials along a stretch of Japan’s northeastern coast warned residents that the area could be hit by another tsunami. Residents were ordered to higher ground. But the Meteorological Agency later said the warning was a false alarm.
The blast at the nuclear plant was felt 30 miles away by Associated Press journalists in the coastal town of Soma, where residents fled the town for safety after being herded quickly through muddy, debris-strewn streets.
TV footage showed a massive column of smoke belching from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant’s No. 3 unit, about 125 miles north of Tokyo. Japanese officials said they believe it was a hydrogen explosion similar to an earlier one at a different unit in the facility.
More than 180,000 people have evacuated the area, and up to 160 may have been exposed to radiation.
Before the power plant blast, sirens around Soma, which was battered by Friday’s tsunami, went off and public address systems ordered residents to safety.
Farther south along the coast, helicopters flew over coastal communities warning residents to head to higher ground in the event of another tsunami. In Sendai, the biggest city in the area, police announced warnings on a public address system.
In Tokyo and elsewhere, authorities began rolling blackouts to conserve power as they tried desperately to stabilize the nuclear reactors at risk of meltdown in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. The disasters sent Tokyo’s stock market plunging as it opened, raising fears of a steep economic toll on top of the already overwhelming human suffering.
The planned blackouts of about three hours each in Tokyo and other cities are meant to help make up for the loss of power from key nuclear plants. Trade Minister Banri Kaieda said Sunday that the power utility expects a 25 percent shortfall.
Some 1.9 million households were without electricity, but many people were without even more basic necessities. At least 1.4 million households had gone without water since the quake struck, and food aid was slow in reaching many areas.
Friday’s quake and tsunami, which swallowed towns and tossed large ships like game-board pieces, caused tens of billions of dollars in losses, according to preliminary estimates. And the first day of stock trading since the disasters opening underlined the challenges Japan’s already fragile economy will have in bouncing back.
The benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average shed 494 points, or 4.8 percent, to 9,760.45 just after the market opened Monday. Japan’s central bank quickly responded by injecting 7 trillion yen (about $85.5 billion) into money markets.
Officials have confirmed about 1,800 deaths from the earthquake and tsunami – including 200 people whose bodies were found Sunday along the coast – and said more than 1,700 were missing and 1,900 injured.
The death toll seemed certain to get much higher after a report from Miyagi, one of the three hardest hit states. The police chief estimated that more than 10,000 people were killed there, police spokesman Go Sugawara told The Associated Press.
Only about 400 people in the state of 2.3 million have been confirmed dead so far.
Rescuers pulled bodies from mud-covered jumbles of wrecked houses, shattered tree trunks, twisted cars and tangled power lines while survivors took the first difficult steps toward rebuilding their lives. Hundreds of thousands of hungry survivors huddled in darkened emergency centers that were cut off from rescuers, aid and electricity.
Hajime Watanabe, a 38-year-old construction worker, said he walked two hours Sunday to find a convenience store that was open and waited in line to buy dried ramen noodles. He also got in line in Sendai for gas, along with hundreds of others. By Monday morning the station still was not open.
“I’m giving up hope,” he said. An emergency worker in white helmet came over and told him if the station opens at all, the gas may be allocated for emergency teams and essential government workers.
He and his family are living in a shelter, fearful that one of the aftershocks that continue to strike will destroy their apartment building.
“I never imagined we would be in such a situation,” Watanabe said. “I had a good life before. Now we have nothing.”
About one-third of the town of Soma was wiped out, with several hundred homes washed away.
Atsushi Shishito sat in a daze on the concrete foundation of his home, now completely washed away. He sleeps at an evacuation center.
The 30-year-old carried his 87-year-old grandmother to higher ground to escape the tsunami but said, “All my other relatives are all dead. Washed away.”
Near-freezing temperatures compounded the misery.
One rare bit of good news was Sunday’s rescue of a 60-year-old man swept away by the tsunami who clung to the roof of his house for two days until a military vessel spotted him waving a red cloth about 10 miles offshore.