Strong earthquake shakes northeastern Japan, small tsunami strikes coast


People use mobile phones as they are stranded at Sendai railway station in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture on Dec. 7, 2012 after trains were halted following a strong earthquake that struck off the coast of northeastern Japan. (AP/AP)
December 7, 2012

A 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck Friday off the coast of northeastern Japan, triggering a small tsunami in a region still recovering from the March, 2011 mega-disaster and wobbling buildings as far away as Tokyo, 300 miles from the epicenter.

NHK, the national public broadcaster, reported at least 10 injuries, and social media users snapped pictures of fallen grocery store shelves. But the damage didn’t begin to compare to that of March 11, 2011, when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake led to a deadly tsunami with 40-foot waves and a series of meltdowns at a nuclear plant.

In this case, the earthquake hit at 5:18 p.m. local time, roughly 180 miles off Japan’s Pacific coast. Two aftershocks, 6.2- and 5.5-magnitude quakes, followed within 30 minutes.

And Japan, an island nation stretching across some of the world’s most seismically active fault lines, experienced a rerun of post-quake trauma, with trains halting, cell phone networks tying up, and with broadcasters on NHK urging coastal residents to flee for their lives.

Waves between 3 feet and several inches hit the coasts, with no major signs of damage, based on initial media reports. But thousands had to evacuate their homes — mostly in the fishing towns whose low-lying areas were flattened 21 months ago.

Even outside of Fukushima, the prefecture (or state) from which more than 100,000 evacuated last year because of radiation, the reconstruction process has been slow. Towns remain divided whether to rebuild on low or high land. The central government has burned billions from its reconstruction budget on unrelated projects, according to a recent national audit board report. And the coastal infrastructure is still prone to subsequent earthquakes, with tectonic plates off the northeastern coast still potentially under strain.

With strong building codes and world-class tsunami alert systems, though, Japan is well-prepared for most natural disasters. The March 11, 2011 quake, one of the strongest of the last century, was 355 times more powerful than Friday’s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. And in between those two earthquakes, Japan had experienced 87 tremblers of magnitude 6.0 or higher.

Because of public opposition to atomic energy following the meltdowns in Fukushima, Japan has now shuttered all but two of its 50 viable nuclear reactors. And no nuclear plant reported irregularities Friday. The two operating reactors are on the western side of Japan’s main Honshu island.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda canceled an afternoon speech because of the quake, the Kyodo news agency reported. Noda is fighting against long odds to keep his job ahead of a Dec. 16 parliamentary election, with polls indicating that the opposition Liberal Democratic Power will easily regain power.

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