The Mar. 28, 2011, cover of TIME
Cover Credit: PHOTOGRAPH BY ALY SONG / REUTERS
By Lily Rothman
March 11, 2015

It has now been four years to the day since an earthquake and tsunami upended Japan. These days, the country continues to rebound from the devastating natural disaster that struck on Mar. 11, 2011, with cleanup — nuclear and otherwise — and reflection ongoing.

In the days and weeks immediately following the earthquake, those questions were all the more urgent.

TIME devoted a special report to the aftermath of the disaster, taking a look at Japan’s nuclear power industry as well as its national character. The insights drawn from those investigations are still worth heeding, even today. As TIME’s Nancy Gibbs wrote in the aftermath of the quake:

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.

Read the full special report, here in the TIME Vault: Japan’s Meltdown

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