By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - A typhoon killed 17 people in Japan on Wednesday, most on an offshore island, but largely spared the capital and caused no new disaster as it brushed by the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power station, the plant's operator said.
More than 50 people were missing after the "once in a decade" Typhoon Wipha roared up Japan's east coast. About 20,000 people were told to leave their homes because of the danger of flooding and hundreds of flights were canceled.
Sixteen people were killed on Izu Oshima island, about 120 km (75 miles) south of Tokyo, as rivers burst their banks. The storm set off mudslides along a 2 km (1.2 mile) stretch of mountains.
Television footage showed roads clogged with wreckage and houses with gaping holes smashed into them.
"I heard a crackling sound and then the trees on the hillside all fell over," a woman on Izu Oshima told NHK television.
The storm brought hurricane-force winds and drenching rain to the Tokyo metropolitan area of 30 million people at the peak of the morning rush hour.
A woman was swept away by a swollen river in western Tokyo and more than 50 people were missing, the government said, including two schoolboys engulfed by waves on a beach.
About 20 people were hurt by falls or being struck by flying debris.
The operator of the Fukushima nuclear plant, Tokyo Electric Power Corp, canceled all offshore work and secured machinery as the storm approached.
RAIN PUMPED OUT
The operator, known as Tepco, has been struggling to contain radioactive leaks since a 2011 earthquake and tsunami caused extensive damage and triggered the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.
A Tepco spokesman said Typhoon Wipha had caused no new problems at the plant, which is on the coast 220 km (130 miles) north of Tokyo.
The storm dumped heavy rain and it had to be pumped out of protective containers at the base of about 1,000 tanks storing radioactive water, the by-product of a jerry-rigged cooling system designed to control wrecked reactors.
The rainwater was checked for radioactivity and released into the sea, the company spokesman said.
Wipha was down-graded to a tropical depression by 0700 GMT. It was off the coast of northeastern Japan and moving northeast at 95 kph (59 mph), according to the Japan Meteorological Agency.
At its height, it had sustained winds at its centre of 126 kph (78 mph) and gusts of up to 180 kph (112 mph).
More than 500 flights at Tokyo's Haneda and Narita airports were canceled, and thousands of schools closed. Bullet train services were halted but resumed by Wednesday afternoon.
Typhoon Wipha was the strongest storm to hit the region since October 2004. That cyclone triggered floods and landslides that killed almost 100 people, forced thousands from their homes and caused billions of dollars in damage.
(Additional reporting by Chris Meyers, Billy Mallard and Antoni Slodkowski and Yuka Obayashi; Editing by Robert Birsel)