The harrowing 8.9 earthquake and ensuing tsunamis that hit Japan today have caused massive damage and destruction across the northern parts of the country, including a fire and failed cooling system at a nuclear plant. Workers are scrambling to repair the system at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant in Onagawa, northeast of Tokyo, but the process is not going as planned. Nearly 3,000 people have been evacuated from the area and a nuclear emergency situation has been declared.

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Photo credit: Tobin

Here at Inhabitat, we have discussed the benefits of nuclear energy as a clean power source, but unpredictable disasters like this are a brutal reminded that nuclear power is a very volatile and potentially scary resource. After the quake hit, the plant’s backup generation system failed, resulting in the loss of water supply to cool the reactor. The reactor core in any plant remains hot even after a shutdown. A fire also broke out in a turbine building of the plant, which is separate from the reactor. Smoke was seen coming from the building, and the blaze was quickly distinguished.

Japanese officials are treating the situation as an emergency, but Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said that there was not an immediate danger of radiation leak from the plant. He added that they launched the emergency measures to be prepared to deal with the worst case scenario. Four nuclear power plants closest to the quake’s epicenter have been safely shut down, and eleven other were automatically shut down in the affected areas.

Since 1973, nuclear power has been a national strategic priority for Japan as the nation is heavily dependent on imported fuel and oil for its energy needs. The country has 54 reactors that provide 30 percent of the nation’s energy needs, and they plan to increase nuclear power to account for 40 percent of energy needed by 2017.