Tokyo, March 12 (DPA) The number of people feared dead or missing after Japan was hit by an earthquake and tsunami could top 1,600, news reports said Saturday, as concern rose over damaged nuclear reactors.
Japan was assessing the devastation a day after the 8.9-magnitude quake and 10-metre high tsunami rocked the north-eastern part of the country Friday.
The toll would probably be well over 1,000, said Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary.
'This is the largest earthquake since the Meiji Era, and it is believed that more than 1,000 people have lost their lives,' he said.
Authorities had recovered hundreds of bodies, with more than 1,000 people still missing and many injured, news reports said, the authorities warned of further tsunamis and aftershocks.
A police toll was at 564, Kyodo News reported, but up to 500 additional bodies were reported from around Japan and about 600 remain unaccounted for.
Some 210,000 people were evacuated from the region around two nuclear power plants in Fukushima prefecture, about 250 kilometres north-east of Tokyo, where an explosion occurred earlier in the day after the reactor's cooling system started failing.
Radioactive material had been detected nearby, and radiation inside the plant had been measured at 1,000 times the normal levels, the government's nuclear safety commission said.
The Meteorological Agency said more than 100 aftershocks had occurred, many of them over 6 on the Richter scale.
The government had mobilised 50,000 military and other rescue workers, and sent 190 aircraft and 25 vessels to areas affected by the quake and tsunami, airlifting some victims to safety and evacuating others by lifeboat.
International assistance was on its way, as the United States dispatched more than 140 personnel on Friday, and New Zealand said Saturday it would send a 48-member search-and-rescue team.
About 900 Japanese troops and 250 vehicles were being transported by ships belonging to US forces stationed in the country.
Thousands of houses were destroyed, several bridges collapsed, bus and train services were shut down and many roads were closed. Mobile phone networks and landline services were affected.
Television footage showed flattened fishing villages and shattered cities with piles of rubble on the streets as the tsunami surged five kilometres inland in some areas. Many people were forced to spend the night on the roofs of schools, hospitals or government buildings, as temperatures dropped to freezing.
In Rikuzen Takata, a coastal town of 23,000 people that was one of the worst-hit areas, about 5,000 of the estimated of the 8,000 homes were destroyed, news reports said.
Around 1,800 houses in Minami Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, were destroyed. Flooding and tsunami warnings were preventing relief efforts to reach survivors by road or boat.
The government ordered the extension of the evacuation zones around the Fukushima plants to 20 kilometres.
The whole country was also facing the risk of blackouts due to damage to the power grid in the affect area, the Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) warned.
TEPCO urged businesses and residents across Japan to use electricity sparingly, as the energy supply capacity was reduced.
The company sought support from other energy operators, Kyodo news agency reported.
Officials feared the toll could reach thousands, as the damage was reportedly more widespread that in 1995, when 6,400 people died after a 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck Kobe in western Japan.