The Day the Earth Moved

Japan's cataclysmic earthquake set off a chain reaction felt round the world

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Reuters

The 9.0 quake that hit Japan on March 11 was powerful enough to shift the earth on its axis and make it spin a little faster, shortening the day by 1.8 millionths of a second. It shoved the island nation one parking space to the east. But what felt like the end was just the beginning.

The sturdy buildings that survived the quake were ravaged by the wave that followed. The three-story wall of water dissolved coastal towns, dry-docked boats on the roofs of buildings and shuffled houses like playing cards. There were so many aftershocks that people stopped diving under tables. Those who made it safely to higher ground waited in the dark, in the cold, in lines that stretched for hours for water and food. In a society seen as the most stoic on earth, the closest thing to chaos was a man cutting in line.

But still it was not over; only the earth and sea had spoken. The next danger came from the sky. Officials warned people to stay inside and seal whatever was left of their homes because the new threat was silent, invisible — and airborne. A rich country perched on four fault lines and with no oil reserves embraces nuclear power with the caution born of long memory and scars. But no one calculated what would happen if the fail-safes failed.

When the quake hit, the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex did exactly what they were supposed to do: they shut down. But then the wave came, breached the seawall, drowned the backup generators needed to cool the reactors and took out the spare batteries. It was left to a skeleton crew of 50 to jury-rig fire hoses to keep the temperatures down.

One by one, the outer buildings exploded. This is also what they were designed to do, to release pressure and protect the core. The best nuclear scientists on the planet raced to avert a total meltdown even as radioactivity levels as far south as Tokyo spiked to 23 times as high as normal. With the menace growing by the hour, the most fateful calculation came down to the most fickle: Which way is the wind blowing?

It only started as a natural disaster; the next waves were all man-made, as money fled to higher ground. Fear and uncertainty sheared $700 billion off the Toyko Stock Exchange in three days. Japan makes nearly a quarter of the world's semiconductors and most of its gadgets. Sony suspended production at seven plants; carmakers slowed output, fearful of gaps in the supply chain; power companies scheduled rolling blackouts. How can a global recovery take hold if the world's third largest economy is out of business, even temporarily? Meanwhile, Switzerland announced a freeze on new nuclear plants, Germany shut down all its facilities built before 1980, and the U.S. Congress called for hearings on nuclear safety. The flooded Japanese plants will never reopen. But demand for power only grows.

We sleep easy in the soft arms of clichés: hope for the best, prepare for the worst; risk varies inversely with knowledge; it's a waste of time to think about the unthinkable. But Japan shook those soothing assumptions. No amount of planning, no skills or specs or spreadsheets, can stop a force that moves the planet.