As Japan's nuclear crisis worsens at the Fukushima Daiichi plant 160 miles northeast of Tokyo more questions than answers have arisen about just how damaged the plant is and how much danger residents are in. This seesaw story has swung rapidly between peril and promise and back again, or as a colleague of mine once said, between no hope (catastrophe) and new hope (it's under control).
The challenge for the press and for government, seldom achieved in this crisis thus far, is to sound an appropriate alarm for those who are at greatest risk -- workers and local residents -- while calming those at little or no risk. (The challenge is intensified when instant global communication turns everyone into an observer, reporter, and worrier all at once.)
So how worried should we be about the unfolding disaster at Fukushima? Here are some key questions to ask in the hours and days to come.
1. What is the current state of damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi?
This has been a moving, and confusing, target and it's been hard to plot a trend line. Tokyo Electric Power Co. reported that fire had broken out again early Wednesday morning in Japan (Tuesday evening in the U.S.) in the building housing reactor 4. A hydrogen explosion had also occurred earlier at reactor 2. That brings the number of crippled units to four of the plant's six reactors. As with the pot that boils over on one burner of a stove when you're stirring another, the initial concerns focused on units 1 and 3, in which hydrogen explosions occurred over the weekend and had seemed somewhat more stable. But new concerns about reactor 3 containment have now arisen. Units 4, 5, and 6 were not operating at the time of the earthquake, but experts are now worried about storage of pools of spent nuclear fuel rods heating up.