Japan investigates 'nuclear leak'

Japanese officials are investigating the possibility of a second radioactive leak from a nuclear plant, following Monday's earthquake in central Japan.

Drums with low-level nuclear waste fell over during the tremors, and some of their lids were found open.

Water containing radioactive material is already known to have leaked from the plant into the sea, but officials say it will not harm the environment.

Monday's quake killed nine people and flattened hundreds of homes.

Thousands of people affected by the tremor - which was centred off the coast of Niigata prefecture - have crowded into evacuation centres.

Large parts of the coastal town of Kashiwazaki remain without power and water.

Rescue workers are looking for survivors in the rubble, while attempts are being made to restore severed utilities.

"The damage is more than we had imagined," said Kashiwazaki's Mayor, Hiroshi Aida, during a tour of the town.

"We want to restore the water supply as soon as possible so more people can return home."

One man living in nearby Niigata City described the earthquake as the biggest he had ever experienced.

"It was a very strange feeling... some crazy power was shaking the house with such a force that I wasn't able to stand on my feet for 20 seconds," said Evgeniy Podolskiy.

"After that, our huge concrete building was still shaking smoothly like a jelly in complete silence," he told BBC News.

Safety concerns

Kensuke Takeuchi, a spokesman at the Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear plant, confirmed that barrels of low-level nuclear waste had tipped over, but added that he could not say whether there had been a leak.

"We're currently investigating the situation and plan to deal with it as smoothly as possible," the Associated Press news agency quoted him as saying.

The Kyodo news agency reported that about 100 drums had fallen over, and that this was discovered on Tuesday, a day after the quake.

There have long been concerns about the safety of Japan's nuclear power plants, which many fear are vulnerable in earthquakes.

Monday's 6.8-magnitude quake sparked a small fire at an electrical transformer in the Kashiwazaki plant, the world's largest in terms of power output capacity.

It was later announced that the tremors had also caused a leak of water containing radioactive material. Officials later said the water leak was harmless.

Counting the cost

Other businesses are also beginning to count the cost of the earthquake.

Riken Corp, which makes car parts for companies such as Honda and Toyota, says its is unsure when it will be able to resume production at its factory in Kashiwazaki after the quake injured some of its employees and damaged equipment.

Fuji Xerox has also had to halt production at its Kashiwazaki plant, which mainly assembles printers, because it is without power and there has been some damage to the building.

(Published by BBC News, July 17, 2007)

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