EARTHQUAKE, TSUNAMI AND NUCLEAR CRISIS
On March 11, 2011, an earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, churning up a devastating tsunami that swept over cities and farmland in the northern part of the country and set off warnings as far away the west coast of the United States and South America. Recorded as 8.9 on the Richter scale, it was the most powerful quake ever to hit the country. In the days that followed death estimates soared astronomically, with officials saying that more than 10,000 had died in one seaside town alone. As the nation struggled with a rescue effort, it also faced the worst nuclear emergency since Chernobyl; explosions and leaks of radioactive gas took place in two reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station that suffered partial meltdowns, while spent fuel rods at another reactor overheated and caught fire, releaseing radioactive material directly into the atmosphere.
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Multimedia: see what happens in a meltdown, a map of the areas of damage, satellite before and after photos, the cause of the quake and readers' photos.
Workers struggled to reassert control over badly damaged nuclear reactors and avert calamity after the situation at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant appeared to verge towards catastrophe. Radiation levels shot up at the plant after a new explosion and a fire caused by the overheating of spent fuel rods in a pool at the plant's No. 4 reactor, which had been shut before the quake. But by late afternoon, there were signs that workers had, at least for the moment, contained some of the danger: The escalated radiation levels of earlier in the day — possibly from a fire in the No. 4 reactor — stabilized and then declined towards evening, according to Japanese authorities. But some experts warned that the pools holding spent fuel rods could continue to pose a great danger.
The National Police Agency said that 2,722 people had died, and many thousands were still missing. Bodies continued to wash ashore at various spots along the coast after having been pulled out to sea by the tsunami’s retreat. Some 400,000 people were living in makeshift shelters or evacuation centers, officials said. Bitterly cold and windy weather that was pushing into northern Japan was compounding the misery as the region struggled with shortages of food, fuel and water.
The prospect of a nuclear catastrophe led to heavy selling on global markets, driving the benchmark index in Tokyo down more than 10 percent, while Frankfurt tumbled over 4 percent in early European trading. And the disaster in Japan has immediately affected the supply of all sorts of components used in myriad consumer electronics and other products.
Also: For the elderly, the destruction echoed memories of World War II. Germany said it will temporarily shut down seven German nuclear power plants that began operations before the end of 1980 as officials begin a three-month safety review of all of the country’s 17 plants.
SLIDESHOW FROM NEW YORK TIMES