Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Explained: A Sampler

The crippled Fukushima nuclear plant as of March 15, 2011. Credit: daveeza/flickr

Difficult though it is to believe, the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan happened less than a week ago. It would have been even harder to believe, when the first damage reports began rolling in, that the quake and tsunami would have taken a backseat in the headlines to the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, whose 25th anniversary is coming next month. In fact, there's still a distinct possibility that the Fukushima disaster will surpass Chernobyl and Three Mile Island to become the worst nuclear disaster in history (if you discount Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of course).

Getting a handle on exactly what's happening at Fukushima is difficult, for a couple of reasons. First, nobody can actually get inside the plants to inspect the damage close-up. It's simply too dangerous. Second, Japanese officials haven't been very good at providing what information they do have. And third, the situation keeps changing, day-to-day and even hour-to-hour. 

Nevertheless, a number of news and other organizations have quickly put together some useful resources that can help us understand something of what's happening at Fukushima, and what could happen next. 

For an up-to-date timeline of the disaster, for example, check out this Wikipedia page.

The New York Times has, as always, compiled a wealth of information. They've posted a graphic showing how a plume of radioactivity released from the plant is likely to spread (this graphic does NOT include information about actual radiation levels; only about wind patterns). The Times also has an excellent page showing the current status of each of the six reactors at Fukushima, which is updated daily. And there's an interactive graphic showing how a reactor shuts down and — if things spin out of control, as they may now be doing — how it melts down.

There's also an excellent multipart series of graphics at The Washington Post that lays out almost anything you'd care to know about the disaster, from information about the reactors themselves to evacuation plans and more.

The U.K.'s Guardian website has a terrific multimedia explainer starring reporter Ian Sample on video, with all sorts of supplementary material. 

And finally, Slate comes at the story from its usual different angle by providing a worldwide interactive map of where, when and how powerfully tsunamis have struck the world since 1975.

If you've seen other examples of great explainers, whether in graphical or other form, please let us know in comments.