We have all been deeply shocked and saddened by the recent events in Japan, including the devastating earthquake and tsunami and the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. I am sure the entire House will join me in extending our heartfelt sympathy to the Japanese Government and people at this especially difficult time.
At magnitude 9 on the Richter scale, the earthquake that struck north-eastern Japan on 11 March was one of the ten largest quakes ever recorded anywhere in the world. The strength was such that the residents of Tokyo, some 373 km from the epicentre, felt major tremors. Closer still to the epicentre, the prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima were hit by a deadly tsunami with ten-metre high waves that destroyed everything in their path. In the worst hit Miyagi prefecture, houses toppled over or collapsed, killing or burying thousands of people, while the waves washed away entire towns and villages. Extraordinary television images showed a tide of muddy water sweeping cars and houses across open land at high speed.
While Japan has a long history of coping with natural disasters and has one of the best developed systems of civil protection anywhere in the world, the sheer scale of these tragic events left thousands of people dead or missing and many thousands more destitute. More than 500,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, with many of these forced to take refuge in community centres or temporary shelters. Hundreds of thousands more were left without electricity or water.
It is against this backdrop that the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has arisen. In the hours following the earthquake, the Japanese authorities declared a heightened state of alert at the plant. Three of the plant's six reactors were not operating when the earthquake occurred and although the other three shut down automatically, power supplies to the plant were damaged by the tsunami, resulting in the failure of the plant's cooling systems. On 12 March, an explosion occurred at one of the plant's reactors. In the following days, explosions occurred at two other reactors and a fire broke out at a spent fuel storage pond in a fourth reactor.
Work is ongoing to control the situation at the power plant. Sea water is being used to cool the reactor pressure vessels and the spent fuel ponds, while work is ongoing to restore power to the plant. Although the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, has now indicated that the situation at the plant seems to be stabilising, it has warned that the overall situation remains serious. In response to the risks posed by the plant, the Japanese authorities have evacuated the area within 20 km of it and are advising people within a distance of 20 km to 30 km of the plant to stay indoors, keep windows and doors closed and not use ventilation.
There are two aspects to the Department of Foreign Affairs' response to the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. The first relates to the consular functions of the Department in providing assistance to Irish citizens overseas. The second relates to the humanitarian assistance offered to Japan through Irish Aid. I will deal with each of these aspects in turn.
Upon learning of the earthquake, the Department of Foreign Affairs opened its crisis centre on Friday and Saturday, 11 and 12 March, to offer assistance and advice to families in Ireland who may have had concerns about relatives in Japan. When the earthquake struck, 12 Irish citizens were in the affected area. The ambassador in Tokyo travelled to Sendai and contacted all the Irish citizens in the region and arranged for their safe passage out of the area. Our ambassador and his staff at the embassy have now accounted for the safety of all of the Irish citizens known to be living or working in the affected areas in Japan. I am greatly relieved that no Irish citizens were injured or suffered serious loss.
The Department, both in Dublin and through our embassy in Tokyo, is continuing to provide assistance to Irish citizens in Japan. The embassy has been in daily contact with Irish citizens in the Tokyo area. The Department continues to advise citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Japan, including Tokyo, and not to travel to affected areas in the north-eastern part of the main, Honshu island of Japan.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the work of the Department's crisis centre and, in particular, the ambassador and staff of the embassy in Tokyo who, under difficult conditions, worked throughout the crisis to ensure the safety and well-being of Irish citizens in Japan.
Aside from the problems experienced at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the overall situation remains difficult, with potential disruptions to the supply of essential goods and services. In light of this, we have encouraged Irish citizens, particularly people with small children, to consider leaving the north east of Japan and the Tokyo region. We have advised people seeking to leave these areas to make a travel reservation as soon as possible. Those Irish citizens who wish to leave are doing so by commercial means, many options for which are available. As of now, we are not aware of any Irish citizen who wishes to leave and has been unable to do so. The embassy in Tokyo is ready to provide assistance to any citizen who requires it. We are continuing to monitor the situation closely. The Department's travel advice for Japan is being kept under review and will be amended as the situation develops.
I will now deal with the second part of our response to the earthquake and tsunami, namely, the provision of assistance to Japan. In the hours following the earthquake and tsunami, the Government placed the Irish Aid rapid response corps on standby to deploy to the areas affected by the disaster. The corps is composed of highly skilled individuals with the type of knowledge and experience that is most required during a humanitarian emergency. In addition, we informed the Japanese authorities that we would be making available our emergency stockpiles from the UN-managed humanitarian depots in Dubai and Subang, Malaysia. These supplies include emergency shelter equipment such as tents, tarpaulins and blankets as well as water and sanitation kits and provide a basic infrastructure to help those who have lost their homes.
Japan is probably the best equipped country in the world to deal with major disasters of this kind. Nevertheless, the fact that it has been obliged to deal with three major emergencies simultaneously — an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear crisis — has meant that its response capacity has been pushed to the limit. Therefore, it appealed last week to the European Union and its member states for practical and financial help. The Government immediately responded by providing €1 million to the Japanese Red Cross, which is playing a leading role in the delivery of essential support to the many people left injured or homeless by the disaster. We are also in close contact with the EU's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, ECHO, which is helping to co-ordinate the delivery of the requested European assistance with the Japanese authorities. We are co-ordinating the delivery of relief supplies such as blankets and water tanks from our stocks in Dubai with those of other member states.
The current situation facing rescue workers and those delivering assistance to those most in need remains highly challenging, with a combination of the destruction caused to the country's infrastructure and poor weather conditions making access to the areas affected extremely difficult. The Japanese Government has been working tirelessly to manage an extremely complex situation and has mobilised more than 120,000 troops and emergency services for the relief effort and the clean-up operation. In the longer term, the focus will shift towards addressing the needs of the thousands of people who have been displaced by the disaster, many of whom cannot go home even when services such as water and electricity are eventually restored because their houses were washed away by the tsunami or levelled by the earthquake.
With the World Bank placing the cost to the Japanese economy at a staggering $232 billion, the recovery and reconstruction effort is likely to be long and difficult. However, it is extremely gratifying that the Japanese people are not alone in this moment of tragedy. The Japanese Government has so far received offers of assistance from 128 countries all over the globe, including Ireland. There is no doubt whatsoever that Japan will be capable of rebuilding and recovering from these tragic events, given the strength and determination shown by the Japanese people since the crisis began. We have witnessed an outpouring of spontaneous generosity, with millions demonstrating acts of kindness and solidarity towards their fellow countrymen and women. At the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, one of the most instantly recognisable spots in the city for a foreign visitor, one young worker told a journalist: "I think human beings survive because they help each other". In these difficult times, this strength and spirit is what gives us confidence in Japan's future. In the coming days, we will continue to do everything we can to aid and assist those affected and to ensure the safety of Irish citizens in Japan.