Japan is just one week removed from its worst earthquake
and tsunami in modern history, and while the devastation is already being overshadowed by another disaster — the ongoing nuclear crisis at Fukushima Daiichi — the original tragedy is still far from over, too. Some 370,000 people are living in 2,100 emergency shelters across northeastern Japan, Kyodo News reports, and with such a huge job of rebuilding ahead, it remains unclear how long they'll have to live there.
The lack of housing is so dire in hard-hit Miyagi prefecture, for example, that Gov. Yoshihiro Murai is asking people to consider relocating somewhere else. "Living conditions will be improved if they move to other prefectures,'' he told reporters Friday. ''It is a nonbinding request. I hope people affected by the quake will cooperate.'' Logistical problems are pervasive throughout the earthquake zone, the New York Times reports, due to fuel shortages, damaged infrastructure and relentless snowstorms, among other issues. In fact, the Japanese government acknowledged Friday that it has been overwhelmed by the double whammy of disasters. "The unprecedented scale of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, frankly speaking, were among many things that happened that had not been anticipated under our disaster management contingency plans," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, who also admitted information hadn't been shared quickly enough. "In hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and coordinating all that information and provided it faster."
The official death toll from the two disasters has reached 6,911 — surpassing the 6,434 killed by Japan's Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 — but the total number of dead and missing is a staggering 17,227, Kyodo reports. And many survivors find themselves living a nightmare — forced from their homes, stuck at emergency shelters, and faced with power outages and a lack of food, fuel and medicine. "We could be living like this for a long time, so all we can do is stay in good spirits," one 60-year-old survivor in Hirota tells the AP. "People here aren't angry or frustrated yet. ... But it's a big question mark whether we can keep living like this for weeks or months. I try to concentrate on what I need to do this morning, this day, and not think about how long it might last."
Japan raised the alert level for its damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Friday, increasing it from a level 4 to a level 5 on the international scale for atomic incidents. That moves it from an "accident with local consequences" to an "accident with wider consequences," and places it just two levels below the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which reached the highest-possible ranking of 7. Daiichi's "wider consequences" are already apparent in Japan and beyond, with the plant's radiation plume crossing the Pacific Ocean and spurring panic from China to California.
Experts insist the radiation doesn't yet pose a significant threat outside the 20-mile exclusion zone around the plant, although that could change quickly if conditions keep deteriorating. The single greatest threat at Daiichi now seems to be the spent-fuel containment pool at reactor No. 4, which U.S. nuclear regulators believe has developed a breach in the wall or floor. If it has, that would explain how the pool could have gone dry — the pools have no drains, since the spent fuel rods must remain submerged in water to avoid dangerous overheating. Not only is that overheating reportedly now occurring, but the existence of a leak in the containment pool could prove a major hindrance in efforts to refill the pool. "My intuition is that this is a terrible situation and it is only going to get worse," a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists tells the Los Angeles Times. "There may not be any way to deal with it."
As plant workers brave high levels of radiation to keep Daiichi's containment pools filled with water — aided by police water cannons, seawater-toting helicopters and a fleet of fire trucks — the crisis is beginning to spur a variety of extreme ideas for solutions, similar to mass brainstorming that occurred during the 2010 Gulf oil spill. One of the more bizarre-sounding options was revealed Friday, when plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said it won't rule out burying Daiichi in concrete as a last resort to prevent a catastrophic radiation leak. That strategy was used at Chernobyl in 1986. "It is not impossible to encase the reactors in concrete," a TEPCO official told Reuters. "But our priority right now is to try and cool them down first."
Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami may trigger a global Toyota Prius shortage, TIME reports, since the popular hybrid is one of the few widely available Japanese cars built exclusively in its home country. Of course, any such shortage pales in comparison to the vast human suffering still rampant in Japan, but as the nation begins the daunting task of rebuilding, it can ill afford to lose one of its hottest economic engines, however temporarily.
The main Prius assembly plant is located west of Tokyo, while another major factory is just outside the quake-ravaged city of Sendai. Both plants miraculously survived the quake and tsunami, but as TIME points out, that might not matter. The disasters shut down 11 nuclear reactors, some of them permanently, as well as 21 thermal electric power plants, wiping out almost 10 percent of Japan's total electrical generation. "The unknown is electrical power [supply]," a Toyota spokesman tells TIME, "and that will be touch and go." (Although in one bit of good news, all of Japan's wind turbines survived the quake
, and are now helping fill the power-supply gap.) The problem isn't just for the Prius, or even Toyota — Nissan and Honda both have endured factory closures in Japan during the past week, and even American carmakers are hamstrung by disrupted shipments of Japanese car parts. General Motors, for one, has already had to shut down a plant that builds pickup trucks Louisiana due to a parts shortage.
But many cars sold in the U.S. are built either here, in Canada or in Mexico, and all three of the major Japanese automakers have relatively few plants in the earthquake zone. So for now, the most dramatic effects will likely be restricted to the Prius, due to its centralized manufacturing hub. And that's bad news for penny-pinching U.S. motorists, since the recent rise of gasoline prices had been boosting Prius sales before the earthquake struck. Toyota sold 24,174 Priuses in January, up 47 percent from the same period a year earlier, but it's now unclear when shipments will resume.
The moon is ready for its close-up, creeping nearer to the Earth on Saturday than it has been in the past 18 years. Dubbed a "supermoon
" or "perigree moon," the event will push the lunar surface within just 221,566 miles, the closest it has been to Earth's surface since 1993. This will produce an unusually large moon in the night sky — roughly 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than normal — something Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory says you won't want to miss. "The last full Moon so big and close to Earth occurred in March of 1993," Chester tells NASA Science News. "I'd say it's worth a look."
The supermoon effect is a result of the moon's oval orbit, which has an elliptical shape that's not always the same distance away from Earth. And as Chester explains, this year's supermoon will be especially super. "The full moon of March 19 occurs less than one hour away from perigee — a near-perfect coincidence that happens only 18 years or so," he says. But contrary to popular belief, perigree moons don't unleash natural disasters on Earth. The approach of a supermoon during Japan's magnitude-9.0 earthquake last week led to some speculation of lunar responsibility for the tragedy, but scientists widely dismiss such a notion. While the moon does influence ocean tides and can impart subtle, indirect influences on the planet's crust, it's simply not capable of spurring such a powerful temblor.
If you want to see the supermoon on Saturday, NASA reports that the best time to look for it will be when it's near the horizon. That's because the moon's actual closeness will be amplified by an optical illusion, in which dense atmospheric gases close to the Earth's surface may magnify the lunar image. But NASA adds that low-hanging moons also appear artificially large when viewed through trees, buildings and other foreground objects, a phenomenon that astronomers and psychologists don't fully understand. Even if you miss this extra-super supermoon, however, don't despair — the oversized satellite will remain super all night long, weather permitting.
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Photo (tsunami-damaged building in Sendai, Japan): ZUMA Press
Photo (woman and dog being tested for radiation in Koriyama, Japan): ZUMA Press
Photo (shoppers looking at a Toyota Prius in Tokyo): Koji Sasahara/AP
Photo (full moon and stars): NASA