TOKYO, Tuesday, July 17 — A powerful earthquake shook Japan’s northwestern coast on Monday morning, killing at least nine people and injuring more than 900, flattening hundreds of buildings and leaving thousands homeless.
The earthquake also caused a small fire at a nuclear power plant, the world’s largest, which later leaked a small amount of water containing radioactive materials into the Sea of Japan.
The company operating the plant said the radioactivity level posed no danger to the environment, but it delayed acknowledging the leak for several hours.
Television commentators criticized the company’s delay in reporting the leak, which was likely to raise fresh concerns about the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Japan depends greatly on nuclear power, and its nuclear industry has long been afflicted by scandals and cover-ups.
The earthquake was centered off the cost of Niigata, a prefecture that was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2004.
Skyscrapers here in Tokyo, about 130 miles southeast of Niigata, swayed for almost a minute.
Japan’s meteorological agency said the magnitude was 6.8; the United States Geological Survey put it at 6.6.
The tremor occurred at 10:13 a.m. on what was a national holiday here. It caused minor tsunamis and buckled roads and bridges. It also toppled one local train and shut down service on the bullet train for several hours, as well as interrupting the supply of power and water to tens of thousands of homes.
Nuclear reactors in the affected area shut down automatically, but the quake caused a small fire at an electrical transformer at a nuclear plant in Kashiwazaki, a coastal town close to the quake’s epicenter.
Japanese television stations showed flames and black smoke billowing from the nuclear plant, which is operated by Tokyo Electric. The fire occurred at the plant’s No. 3 reactor, which the company said suffered no damage.
Tokyo Electric initially said that there had been no radiation leaks at the plant. But later in the evening, it said in a statement that a total of 1.36 quarts of water containing low levels of radioactive materials leaked from two locations at its No. 6 reactor, which had been shut down at the time for a regular inspection, into a larger water tank. A total of 317 gallons of water in the tank, including the small amount containing radioactive materials, was then pumped out into the Sea of Japan.
The leakage occurred at 12:50 p.m. But the company did not acknowledge that there had been a leak containing radioactive materials until past 10 p.m. At that point, it acknowledged on its Web site that it had known at 6:20 p.m. that the leaked water contained radioactive materials, without explaining the delay.
Early Tuesday morning, Akira Amari, the minister of economy, trade and industry, summoned Tokyo Electric’s president, Tsunehisa Katsumata, and warned him about the company’s handling of the incident. “This may cause people to distrust nuclear power,” Mr. Amari said. “We will not have the plant resume operations without confirming safety.”
In 2002, Tokyo Electric was forced to shut down reactors in Fukushima, a prefecture in northeastern Japan, after admitting that it had covered up violations and falsified records at three plants for more than a decade.
On Monday, the Japanese media reported that more than 10,000 people left their homes for evacuation centers after the earthquake. The authorities struggled to deliver provisions to the evacuees, most of whom had access to only hardtack and water by late evening.
Aftershocks could be felt for several hours after the quake, including a large one at 3:37 p.m. that was felt here in Tokyo.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe interrupted a campaign appearance in Nagasaki, in western Japan, to fly by helicopter to Niigata. “I would like to make every possible effort to restore lifelines such as roads, gas and water, because the victims are in a tough situation,” Mr. Abe, whose approval ratings have continued to slide as an election in the upper house of Parliament nears, told reporters after surveying the damage.
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