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Floods spark evacuations as Japan is deluged

Tens of thousands of people were ordered to flee homes across Japan on Thursday as heavy rain pounded the country, sending radiation-tainted waters into the ocean at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant. Waist-high floods in some areas left rescuers scrambling to pluck people to safety as a wide area was deluged in the wake of Typhoon Etau.

"This is a scale of downpour that we have not experienced before. Grave danger could be imminent," forecaster Takuya Deshimaru told an emergency press conference. The Japan Meteorological Agency issued special warnings for Tochigi and Ibaraki prefectures, north of Tokyo, urging vigilance against mudslides and flooding. More than a dozen people were injured, including a 77-year-old woman who broke her leg after falling in strong winds, local reports said.

Etau, which smashed into Japan on Wednesday, moved out into the Sea of Japan (East Sea) by the end of the day, but a wall of rain continued to lash the country. Parts of central Tochigi have seen almost 60 centimetres (two feet) of rain since Monday evening. The torrential downpour has also exacerbated a contaminated water problem at the Fukushima nuclear plant as it overwhelmed the site's drainage pumps, a spokesman for operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) said.

AFP calculations based on TEPCO data reveal hundreds of tonnes of contaminated water may have flowed into the ocean. TEPCO is storing huge volumes of water used to cool reactors that were sent into meltdown when a tsunami hit Japan in 2011. Tochigi authorities ordered more than 90,000 residents to evacuate, while another 116,000 were advised to leave their homes, public broadcaster NHK said.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2015