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A DEVASTATING wall of water swept across Japan‘s east coast north of Tokyo yesterday, destroying towns and suburbs that only minutes before had been shaken by one of the heaviest earthquakes recorded.

The Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, declared a nuclear emergency last night after cooling systems at the Fukushima Daichi power plant were damaged by the 8.9 magnitude quake, causing fears of radioactive leaks.

Three-thousand residents near the plant were being evacuated early this morning.

The plant experienced a mechanical failure in the back-up power generation system to supply water needed to cool the reactor. The reactor core remains hot even after a shutdown.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said it had been told the plant had been shut down successfully and that no radiation leak had been detected.

Tsunami alerts flashed around the Pacific rim after the quake struck at 4.46pm (Sydney Time) about 130 kilometres off the coast.

There were mass evacuations last night in Hawaii, the Philippines, Indonesia and Russia, while people on low-lying Pacific islands, including Kiribati, Tuvalu and Guam, told theHerald they had climbed to the upper storeys of buildings to try to escape the surge.

Early this morning small tsunamis, as high as one metre, hit Indonesia and the Philippines but there were no immediate reports of casualties. Two-metre waves were expected in Hawaii.

At least 95 people in Japan were confirmed dead, but the toll was rising quickly.

Between 200 and 300 bodies were found on a beach near Sendai, the semi-official Jiji Press agency reported.

Transport authorities were unable to locate a train on the Senseki line in the tsunami affected area.

People in Miyagi prefecture had only 15 minutes’ warning before the waves – some of them building to seven metres – struck and pushed many kilometres inland.

TV images showed wreckage, cars and burning rubble being swept along at 40 km/h. People unable to run were overcome by the grinding wall of water. Some who did run were overtaken.

The sea surge pushed five kilometres inland. Mud waves were shown racing upstream along the Natori river in Sendai city, blanketing farmland. A ship carrying 100 people had been swept out to sea, reports said.

Mr Kan urged people to be calm as a massive rescue effort began. ”We will secure the safety of the people of Japan,” he said in a statement after an emergency cabinet meeting. ”The government will make every effort possible and we ask the people of Japan to continue to be cautious and vigilant.”

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, cancelled plans to stop in Hawaii, which was under a tsunami threat, on her way home from New York and instead flew to San Francisco overnight to assess the situation.

Ms Gillard had contacted the Japanese government to offer condolences and support.

While she is in the air today, the National Security Committee of cabinet, led by the acting Prime Minister, Wayne Swan, will meet.

Ms Gillard said people would be shocked at yet another horrific natural disaster in the region.

In Japan’s worst-affected regions 45 Australians are registered with the embassy, but a Department of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said the number was likely to be much higher.

Consular officials were trying to reach registered Australians last night but with limited success. ”Given the current communication difficulties it may take some time,” the spokeswoman said.

The first quake struck about 400 kilometres north-east of Tokyo, the US Geological Survey said. Several aftershocks followed, one as strong as 7.1.

About 11,000 people were evacuated along Russia’s coast.

In Tuvalu, police said alerts had been broadcast and patrols dispatched to knock on doors and warn people to seek high ground.

The quake was the largest to hit Japan, the fifth-strongest tremor worldwide since 1900 and the seventh strongest in history, according to the US Geological Survey and Japanese seismologists. Japan is on the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is dotted with volcanoes.