Japanese officals ask for U.S. assistance as death toll rises and aftershocks continue

March 15, 2011

The Associated Press

Amid fears of radiation from damaged nuclear plants, Japan continues to struggle with the aftermath of a disaster on a scale that's still not fully known. Officials have confirmed about 3,300 deaths in the earthquake and tsunami that struck Friday. But experts in involved in the 2004 Asian tsunami say there's no question that the toll is far higher, and warn that many thousands may never be found. Officials have estimated that at least 10,000 were killed in Miyagi state alone, as millions of people along Japan's northeast coast are coping through a fifth night with near-freezing temperatures and snow but little food, water or heating. Up to 450,000 people are in temporary shelters.

Asia's richest country hasn't seen such hardship since World War II. The stock market plunged for a second day today, with the Nikkei losing more than 10 percent, prompting a spate of panic buying that has stores running out of necessities. Initial estimates put repair costs in the tens of billions of dollars, likely to add to Japan's massive public debt, which, at 200 percent of gross domestic product, is the biggest among industrialized nations.

Further environmental factors are at play; several aftershocks occurred in northeast Japan, beginning Tuesday night and causing buildings in Tokyo to sway. The first, measuring 6.2 in magnitude, struck off the coast of the Fukushima prefecture, 200 miles northeast of Tokyo and near where a massive quake hit last week. Three minutes later, a second 6.0-magnitude quake rumbled under Shizuoka prefecture, 55 miles  southwest of Tokyo.

To deal with mounting pressures, nuclear officials say they may seek U.S. and Japanese military help to spray water from helicopters into an overheating spent fuel storage pool. And though Japan's transport ministry says it has imposed a no-fly zone over a 20-mile radius around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, this does not apply to helicopters being deployed. Ministry spokesman Hiroaki Katsuma said the decision to enforce a no-fly zone was made Tuesday because of fears that radioactive particles leaking from the complex into the atmosphere could enter a passing aircraft.

In response to the atomic crisis in Japan, European Union energy chief says the union has decided to apply stress tests to see how its 143 nuclear plants would react in emergencies similar to this one.