Japan has seen its support systems put to the test in the last few days. The earthquake and tsunami have left the island nation not only shaken but struggling in its efforts to mount an effective recovery effort. And if cleanup efforts, caring for the dead and injured, and restoring systems to their pre-earthquake status weren’t difficult enough, Japan also faces a nuclear crisis, one where damage to nuclear plants during both the earthquake and tsunami have led to a cascade of unfortunate events that could move reactors toward meltdown, further endangering the beleaguered country and its people.
This is how it got to the present point of impending meltdown:
March 11, 2:46 p.m. local, 23:46 UTC: The BBC reported an 8.9 magnitude earthquake, the strongest ever recorded in Japan, developed in the Pacific Ocean, centered 80 miles east of Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. Minutes later, tsunami waves cresting at 30 feet crashed ashore and rolled inland for up to six miles.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, 11 nuclear reactors in Japan shut down automatically when the earthquake hit.
The tsunami, which struck just minutes after the earthquake subsided, completely incapacitated the cooling and backup facilities at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which houses six nuclear reactors. The plant was shut down.
A fire was reportedly extinguished at the Onagawa Nuclear power plant, according to the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency).
The Japanese government ordered everyone within a three-mile radius to evacuate the area.
March 12, 12:40 UTC: An explosion was reported at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. It would later be reported that only damage was done to the building containing the Unit 1 reactor and that the housing of the reactor itself had survived the explosion unscathed.
Residents within a six-mile radius of the plant were ordered to evacuate as plant workers inject boric acid and seawater into the plant reactors in efforts to forestall meltdowns.
March 13: A partial meltdown is believed to have occurred in Fukushima Daiichi reactor Unit 3. At the same time, the cooling system in Unit 2 began to fail.
The Christian Science Monitor reported that more than 200,000 people were evacuated from within a 20-mile radius of the plant.
The IAEA issued an update noting that the Onagawa nuclear plant had seen its radioactivity levels return to normal.
March 14: 3 p.m. UTC: Just hours after an update on three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant indicated that workers were having difficulty cooling Unit 3, the IAEA issued a follow-up bulletin noting that the Unit 3 reactor had exploded. ABC News reported that Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said that Unit 2 had lost its cooling ability and that pressure was rising within the reactor.
The U. S. Geological Survey upgrades the magnitude of the Sendai Earthquake from 8.9 to 9.0.
March 15: 3:20 p.m. UTC: A third explosion rocks the Fukushima Daiichi plant when efforts to cool Unit 2 failed. A fire was also reported at the Unit 4 spent fuel storage pond but was later controlled.
Japanese officials ordered individuals still not evacuated from the area around the Fukushima Daiichi plant to remain indoors as the radiation levels leaked from the damaged reactors reach unsafe levels.
France’s Nuclear Safety Authority, Andre-Claude Lacoste told reporters that the situation in Japan was not as bad as Chernobyl but was worse than that experienced at Three Mile Island. He suggested that the accident level be raised from a 4 (Accident With Local Consequences) to a 7 (Major Accident), the worst rating on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale.