Japan's catastrophe resonates at economic, regulatory and personal levels

By David Nakamura and Joel Achenbach
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 8:02 AM

TOKYO - Japan's catastrophe is resonating around the planet.

As technicians continued to struggle Monday to control a smoke-belching nuclear power plant in Japan, workers at a General Motors engine-manufacturing facility in Buffalo learned that they would be laid off temporarily as the shortage of Japanese-made parts roils the U.S. auto industry.

In Rockville, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission opened hearings on the safety of the country's 104 nuclear reactors, many of them long in the tooth and now undergoing a critical reexamination.

And in Richmond, a family mourned. The U.S. Embassy in Japan informed the parents of Taylor Anderson, a 24-year-old American who had been teaching at a school in Japan, that her body had been identified in tsunami-battered Miyagi prefecture. Anderson reportedly helped parents pick up their children after the earthquake before she rode her bicycle home.

"Fittingly, she was last seen helping parents safely reunite with their children following the earthquake, an act which illustrates her dedication to her students and to the Japanese people she served," said Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

Japan, the world's third-largest economy, will face five years of rebuilding from the disaster, which could cost the nation up to $235 billion, according to the World Bank. By comparison, Hurricane Katrina caused $81.2 billion in damage in 2005, according to a widely cited study by the National Hurricane Center. Last year, the costs of natural disasters soared to a worldwide total of $109 billion, three times the total in 2009, according to the United Nations.

What makes Japan's crisis so anguishing is the nuclear emergency that drags on day after day despite the efforts of hundreds of workers who are putting themselves in the line of atomic fire at the quake-crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The situation there continues to be two steps forward and one step back.

Emergency workers lost precious hours Monday in their ongoing battle to get the six-reactor complex under control when smoke billowed from two of the reactor units. The first cloud was spotted just before 4 p.m. coming out of the building that houses the unit 3 reactor. It tapered off after two hours. But then another cloud rose 20 minutes later near the unit 2 reactor.

No one was hurt, and the incidents were not as alarming as three previous explosions that damaged buildings housing reactors. But radiation levels spiked briefly, and the Tokyo Electric Power Co. evacuated about 700 workers.

Hidehiko Nishiyama, spokesman for the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said work resumed Tuesday morning on the reactors, even though smoke is still coming from the facility. He said that crews hope to finish hooking up the unit 2 reactor to an electrical power supply by Wednesday and that they are still working on reactors 1, 3 and 4.

"Yesterday, there were some ups and downs," he said. "That has currently settled down."

The nuclear drama has drawn the attention of regulators around the world. At the Rockville hearing Monday, William Borchardt, the NRC's executive director for operations, said the situation in Japan appeared to be stabilizing.

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