[Housekeeping note: We have switched to new blogging software, and I am just now, for the first time, attempting to make it work, and am searching for the button that deletes the self-indulgence. So please bear with me.]

An engineer just told me: “People talk about the Big One. This is it. This is what the Big One looks like.”

It’s tragic and horrible. It’s also going to cost Japan a large chunk of its GDP to clean up and rebuild the northern coast. This is bigger than Kobe. And now there’s the nuclear emergency to twist the knife.

We’re trying to figure out exactly what’s happening with the nuclear plants in Japan. According to a new report , a third reactor has had its fuel rods completely exposed, which is a set-up for a meltdown.

Here’s my nagging thought: Although this was caused by an earthquake and a tsunami — a one-two punch — and the analysis will certainly focus on whether the nuclear regulatory officials in Japan adequately anticipated this kind of disaster, the fundamental problem with cooling the reactors appears to be the loss of electricity. This is a “station outage.” And that raises the question, for me, of whether something similar could happen in a U.S. nuclear plant. As my colleague Steve Mufson noted to me this morning, perhaps you could have a hurricane that would knock out the grid and flood the backup generators on an East Coast nuclear power plant.

But we’re all trying to get up to speed on this. As with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we’re getting a crash course in technologies most of us know little about.

Obviously this is a really bad situation on top of a horrific tragedy (the footage and reports from northern Japan are unbelievable) , and it’s going to roil nuclear power policy in the U.S., where Obama has generally favored nuclear as a component of long-term energy strategy.

The very first thing that needs to happen is a closer assessment of seismic risk across the U.S., including in the Pacific Northwest, where the Cascadia Subduction Zone is capable of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake. It’s about 60 miles offshore and created a tsunami in 1700.

More to come....