The scope of the tragedy in Japan grew increasingly apparent Monday, with more than 10,000 deaths reported and a nuclear disaster threatening to spiral out of control. Friday's magnitude-8.9 earthquake and the subsequent tsunami have spurred Japan's "worst crisis since World War II," according to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, and for millions of people across the island nation, the nightmare is just beginning.
Rescuers are still searching for survivors along the devastated northeastern coast, but with only sporadic luck — one man was found clinging to his roof nearly 10 miles out at sea, for example, while some entire towns appear virtually devoid of life. Emergency workers are also racing to help more than half a million displaced victims, but their humanitarian efforts are being partly overshadowed by yet another catastrophe: explosions and radiation leaks at quake-damaged nuclear power plants. Workers at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station have been flooding its reactors with seawater in a desperate attempt to avoid a full meltdown, and are periodically releasing radioactive steam into the atmosphere to relieve pressure. And while experts say a Chernobyl-scale disaster is unlikely, nearby residents have been evacuated, and U.S. Navy ships have detected radiation as far as 100 miles away. An explosion blew the roof off Fukushima Daiichi's second reactor Monday morning, while the Japanese government announced later in the day that cooling systems at a third reactor had failed. So far, there has been only a partial meltdown of the reactor cores, officials say, but potentially dangerous radiation is still escaping, and some worry the situation could persist for weeks or even months. As one U.S. official tells the New York Times, "under the best scenarios, this isn't going to end anytime soon."
The nuclear crisis began Saturday when Fukushima Daiichi suffered its first hydrogen explosion at unit 1, and things grew more dire over the weekend as trace amounts of radioactive elements cesium-137 and iodine-131 were detected outside the plant. The second explosion came Monday morning, injuring several workers and releasing more radiation, but reportedly not damaging the reactor core. Meanwhile, Japan's official death toll from the earthquake and tsunami seemed poised to soar, as officials reported finding 2,000 dead bodies on just two shores in Miyagi Prefecture. Police there say there's "no question" that at least 10,000 people have died in that prefecture alone.
Japan's post-earthquake nuclear crisis is already triggering a chain reaction around the world, spurring officials and civilians in other countries to rethink their own reliance on nuclear energy. And perhaps nowhere is this anxiety more palpable than the U.S. "I think it calls on us here in the U.S., naturally, not to stop building nuclear power plants but to put the brakes on right now until we understand the ramifications of what's happened in Japan," Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday.
The situation has echoes of the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979, which spurred a nearly three-decade pause in the U.S. nuclear industry's growth. Much like Three Mile Island caused the American public to distrust nuclear power's safety, the specter of uncontrolled radiation leaks in Japan now threatens to derail a fledgling revival of U.S. nuclear energy that's been building for several years. That revival had built a "fragile bipartisan consensus," the New York Times reports, bringing together Republicans, Democrats, environmentalists and energy companies by offering plentiful power without the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions. But the basis of that consensus now appears to have dissipated almost overnight. "The accident certainly has diminished what had been a growing impetus in the environmental community to support nuclear power as part of a broad bargain on energy and climate policy," one energy analyst in Washington, D.C., tells the Times.
Still, most U.S. politicians are cautious in their assessment of the situation, warning that it's too early to make domestic decisions based on the disaster in Japan. "I don't think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on "Fox News Sunday. "My thought about it is, we ought not to make American and domestic policy based upon an event that happened in Japan." President Obama has remained similarly hesitant to draw conclusions. "The president believes that meeting our energy needs means relying on a diverse set of energy sources that includes renewables like wind and solar, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power," says a White House spokesman. "Information is still coming in about the events unfolding in Japan, but the administration is committed to learning from them and ensuring that nuclear energy is produced safely and responsibly here in the U.S."
Friday's earthquake was not only the most powerful ever recorded in Japan — and the fifth-strongest measured worldwide — but it also transformed the shape and movement of the Earth. Parts of Japan were thrust eastward by roughly 8 feet, the U.S. Geological Survey reports, and the planet's mass was redistributed so much that it shortened the length of a day by 1.6 microseconds.
The Pacific tectonic plate normally pushes under a western section of the North American plate by about 3.3 inches per year, but a fierce earthquake like last week's can provide a dramatic boost — often with devastating results. "With an earthquake this large, you can get these huge ground shifts," USGS seismologist Paul Earle tells the AFP. "On the actual fault you can get 20 meters [65 feet] of relative movement, on the two sides of the fault." At least one GPS station reportedly moved 8 feet east after the quake, although not all parts of Japan moved uniformly. While areas closer to the quake's epicenter are now several feet closer to the U.S., other parts of the island barely moved at all, meaning Japan is also now wider east-to-west.
In addition to stretching and moving Japan, the quake also affected the planet as a whole. Much like past temblors in Sumatra (2004) and Chile (2010), the intense tectonic movement redistributed some of the Earth's mass closer to its core, causing the planet to rotate more quickly. (The principle is the same as with a spinning figure skater, who spins faster if she pulls her arms inward toward her body, centralizing her center of gravity.) The shift sped up the Earth's rotation by about 1.6 microseconds, according to NASA geophysicist Richard Gross, therefore shortening the day by the same amount. That's a major geological feat, but it's still less dramatic than effects of 2004's magnitude-9.1 earthquake in Sumatra, which shortened the day by 6.8 microseconds.
Could the ancient "lost city" of Atlantis have been destroyed by a tsunami? That's the conclusion of a U.S.-led research team that claims to have finally located the long-rumored city, buried thousands of years ago by a muddy flood in southern Spain. Coincidentally coming just after a colossal tsunami devastated northeastern Japan, the finding not only offers to solve a persistent archeological mystery, but also highlights "the power of tsunamis," says lead researcher Richard Freund.
Atlantis has been legendary for millennia — ever since the Greek philosopher Plato first described a civilization "swallowed up by the sea" — but evidence of its existence or destruction has evaded archaeologists. Yet thanks to a satellite photo of a suspected flooded city near Cadiz, Spain, the team of researchers believe they may have finally found the ill-fated society. It would have taken a much larger tsunami than the one in Japan to wipe out this city, however, since it was located some 60 miles away from the coast. "It is just so hard to understand that it can wipe out 60 miles inland, and that's pretty much what we're talking about," Freund tells Reuters.
While the researchers did find an ancient city, it will be difficult to prove definitively that it's Atlantis. Still, its context among other "memorial cities" found elsewhere in central Spain gives Freund hope this is the real thing. "We found something that no one else has ever seen before, which gives it a layer of credibility, especially for archeology, that makes a lot more sense," he says.
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Photo (tsunami hitting Japan on March 11): ZUMA Press
Photo (nuclear cooling towers): Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Photo (ground fissure in Fukushima, Japan): ZUMA Press
Image (Athanasius Kircher's map of Atlantis, c. 1669): Wikimedia Commons