SENDAI, Japan — A huge explosion rocked a Japanese nuclear plant Tuesday, the third since a devastating quake-tsunami catastrophe that has left engineers struggling to control overheating reactors.
As well as the atomic emergency, Japan is struggling to cope with the enormity of the damage from the record-breaking quake and the tsunami which raced across vast tracts of its northeast, destroying all before it.
The official death toll has risen to 2,414, police said Tuesday, but officials say at least 10,000 are likely to have perished.
Japan's nuclear safety agency said the operator of the stricken Fukushima No.1 power plant on the eastern coast believed the seal around the reactor, which is critical for preventing a major radiation leak, had not been holed.
But the top government spokesman said there appeared to be damage to the structure around the number-two reactor, the third to be hit by an explosion since Friday's disaster which knocked out cooling systems.
The spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, told reporters there could be damage to the suppression pool of the reactor, which forms the base of the container vessel that seals the fuel rods.
"But we have not recorded any sudden jump in radiation indicators," Edano said.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) "said it believes the container vessel has not sustained damage such as a hole, judging from the fact that the radiation level has not jumped", a safety agency spokesman told AFP.
TEPCO said some workers had been evacuated from the number-two reactor at the plant, located 250 kilometres (155 miles) northeast of Tokyo, but those pumping water to cool the reactor were still at work.
Higher radiation levels were recorded in Ibaraki prefecture north of Tokyo after the the blast, Kyodo News reported, but it quoted the safety agency as saying that the level did not pose health risks.
On Saturday an explosion blew apart the building surrounding the plant's number-one reactor but the seal around the reactor itself remained intact, officials said.
On Monday, shortly after Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the plant was still in an "alarming" state, a blast at its number-three reactor shook the facility, injuring 11 people and sending plumes of smoke billowing into the sky.
Late Monday TEPCO said fuel rods at the number-two reactor were almost fully exposed after a cooling pump there temporarily failed.
But the IAEA's Japanese chief Yukiya Amano moved to calm global fears that the situation could escalate to rival the world's worst nuclear crisis at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986.
"Let me say that the possibility that the development of this accident into one like Chernobyl is very unlikely," he said.
Officials have already declared an exclusion zone within a 20-kilometre (12-mile) radius of the plant and evacuated 210,000 people.
At one shelter, a young woman holding her baby told public broadcaster NHK: "I didn't want this baby to be exposed to radiation. I wanted to avoid that, no matter what."
Further north in the region of Miyagi, which took the full brunt of Friday's terrifying wall of water, rescue teams searching through the shattered debris of towns and villages have found 2,000 bodies.
And the Miyagi police chief has said he is certain more than 10,000 people perished in his prefecture.
Millions have been left without water, electricity, fuel or enough food and hundreds of thousands more are homeless and facing harsh conditions with sub-zero temperatures overnight, and snow and rain forecast.
Tokyo stocks, which were punished Monday when the markets reopened, sending indexes around the world sliding, were marked down another 3.03 percent in opening trade Tuesday.
Panic selling saw stocks close more than six percent lower in Tokyo Monday on fears for the world's third-biggest economy, as power shortages prompted rolling blackouts and factory shutdowns in quake-hit areas.
Kaori Ohashi, 39, a mother-of-two working in a facility for the elderly with severe dementia near the city of Sendai, spent two nights trapped in the building after its first floor was submerged by the tsunami.
"Snow started to fall and it became dark. We lost power. I thought 'This is a nightmare'," Ohashi told AFP after she was rescued.
At least 1.4 million people in Japan were temporarily without running water and more than 500,000 were taking shelter in evacuation centres, said the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
At a hospital in the fishing town of Kesennuma hit by the tsunami, an official said basic supplies were desperately needed.
"We are critically short of water," he said. "Water is very important here. To save it, we need a lot of disposable dishes. We need blankets as well."
A tearful elderly woman in the devastated town of Minamisanriku told public broadcaster NHK: "I need to go to hospital. I need medicine."
Aid workers and search teams from across the world joined 100,000 Japanese soldiers in a massive relief push as the country suffers a wave of major aftershocks.
The foreign ministry expressed its "heartfelt appreciation" for offers of help pouring in from around the world, and said rescue teams from 11 countries including China -- Japan's traditional rival -- were now on the ground.
With ports, airports, highways and manufacturing plants shut down, the government has predicted "considerable impact on a wide range of our country's economic activities".
Leading risk analysis firm AIR Worldwide said the quake alone would exact an economic toll estimated at between $14.5 billion and $34.6 billion (10 billion to 25 billion euros) -- even leaving aside the effects of the tsunami.
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