As if the devastation wrought by Friday's magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the resultant tsunami wasn't bad enough, Japan has a growing nuclear crisis to deal with.
Now we are the first to admit that we don't know a heck of a lot about how nuclear powerplants work (although we have been educated quite a bit since Friday!), and that's why we haven't commented on this aspect of Japan's catastrophe to date. But the news ticker on Sky News got our attention a few moments ago when it reported that a US Navy ship 125km away from the damaged Fukushima Diiachi plant was recording low-level radiation.
So we did some thinking; if we were to draw a circle with Wanganui in the centre, what's within 125km? To the west, there's Stratford and Hawera; to the north Raetihi, Ohakune and Taihape; heading east there's Palmerston North, Feilding, Marton, Dannevirke and Pahiatua, and to the south is Foxton, Levin and Otaki, with the Kapiti Coast right on the border. By our rough estimates, around 250,000 people live in that radius, even though much of the area is rural and/or isolated.
Japan is roughly 30 times more populous than New Zealand, in roughly the same area. Multiply our estimate by 30, and the numbers get horrific. If there has indeed been widespread radiation contamination in this area, it is going to add exponentially to Japan's woes, and the effects are going to be felt for many years to come.
The added problem for the recovery effort is that a large part of Japan's capacity to generate electricity has been lost with the damage of varying degrees to three nuclear power plants. Howver, when a radiation cloud is spreading over the countryside, that's the least of the country's problems. "Catastrophic" seems a pretty good description of this human tragedy.