A powerful earthquake shook Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido early Thursday, causing landslides that crushed homes, knocking out power across the island, and forcing a nuclear power plant to use a backup generator.
The magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck southern Hokkaido at 3:08 a.m. Thursday at the depth of 40 kilometers (24 miles), Japan’s Meteorological Agency said. The epicenter was east of the city of Tomakomai but the shaking also affected Hokkaido’s prefectural capital of Sapporo, with a population of 1.9 million.
The Fire and Disaster Management Agency said a man was found without vital signs in Tomakomai, and several people were reported missing in the nearby town of Atsuma, where there was a massive landslide. At least 20 other people were injured in nearby towns.
National broadcaster NHK aired footage of the moment the quake struck Muroran, with its camera violently shaking and all city lights going out a moment later. In Sapporo, a mudslide on a road left several cars half buried.
Power was knocked out for Hokkaido’s 2.9 million households. Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko told reporters that the extensive power outage was caused by an emergency shutdown of the main thermal power plant that supply half of the electricity to all of Hokkaido.
Utility officials are starting up hydroelectric plants to help restart the main thermal plant, Seko said, adding that he to get power back “within a few hours.” In the meantime, authorities have sent power-generator vehicles to hospitals so they can accept emergency patients when needed, he said.
In the town of Atsuma, a massive landslide on a mountain crushed houses below. Reconstruction Minister Jiro Akama told reporters that five people were believed to be buried underneath of the landslide in the town’s Yoshino district, where 40 people were being stranded, according to NHK television. Some of them have been airlifted to safer grounds, NHK said.
At least 76 people were injured and 19 others were missing, NHK said, citing its own tally.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference that the authorities have received hundreds of calls about people missing and buildings collapsing. Officials are doing their utmost for the search and rescue while they assess the extent of damage, he said.
The central government set up a crisis management taskforce at the prime minister’s office.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a taskforce meeting that 4,000 self-defense troops are being deployed on Hokkaido to join search and rescue operations. The government will send 20,000 more to the affected sites, he said.
Three reactors at the Tomari nuclear plant were offline for routine safety checks, but they are running on backup generators that kicked in after losing external power because of the island-wide blackouts, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority said. Spent fuel in storage pools was safely cooled on backup power that can last for a week, the agency said.
The powerful earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 that hit northerneast Japan destroyed both external and backup power to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, causing meltdowns.