An under-construction boat (L) sits on land next to damaged...

An under-construction boat (L) sits on land next to damaged homes in the city of Kamaishi in Iwate prefecture on March 12, 2011 a day after a massive 8.9 magnitude quake and tsunami hit the region. An explosion at a Japanese nuclear plant triggered fears of a meltdown on March 12, after the massive earthquake and tsunami left more than 1,000 dead and at least 10,000 unaccounted for. Credit: Getty Images

The damage that could be seen was bad enough.

The many crumbling buildings, the massive walls of water, the terrible loss of life.

But the real doomsday scenario in the Japanese earthquake, the specter of an unthinkable catastrophe, was largely invisible: the threat to Japan's network of nuclear power plants.

A fire broke out at the Onagawa plant in northeastern Japan. And a hydrogen explosion badly damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, sparking fears of a disastrous meltdown.

No one could say for certain how much radiation was released.

But when power went out at the Daiichi 1 reactor, the cooling system failed, overheating the reactor fuel, which contains most of the radioactivity in the plant. The concrete structure surrounding the reactor was destroyed, though not the critical steel container inside.

As panic spread, officials ordered the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in a 12-mile radius.

And the U.S. nuclear-power industry immediately gasped.

After Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the U.S. nuclear industry all but went to sleep for three decades. Most older plants kept operating, but no-nuke politics around Shoreham and elsewhere and utility investment decisions essentially ended talk of new plants.

Lately, that has changed.

Foreign oil, fears of international terror, the BP oil spill, uproar in the Middle East -- they've all been nudging nuclear power back into the energy conversation.

Until the earthquake in Japan.

Is nuclear safe? Should it replace oil and coal? What happens in a serious natural disaster?

As the earthquake cleanup in Japan begins, those issues are about to shake America again.


WHY STOP WITH DAYLIGHT SAVING?

1. Add 1,000 points to the Dow.

2. Knock 25 pounds off the scale.

3. Cut that pesky mortgage in half.

4. Give every high-school senior an extra 100 SAT points.

5. Reduce the Japanese earthquake to magnitude 0.0.ASKED AND UNANSWERED: Predictable Headline of the Week? What beats "Peter King's Speech"? . . . Feeling safer yet? . . . Ronnie's Hardware is closing in Franklin Square after 63 years? Would that have happened if more people drove past the Home Depot and bought something at Ronnie's? . . . Those prayers for the ailing Yogi must have worked, huh? It ain't over yet . . . How do Eric Mendelsohn's former neighbors in Old Bethpage feel about his front-back theory of suburbia? To the "3 Backyards" director, front lawns are public faces, while backyards are a Freudian sketch of our twisted unconscious . . . Publicity stunt or legitimate rider gripe? Kimon Stathakos' suit against the LIRR over snow-day disruptions this winter . . . Is smoking in a car with kids just another form of child abuse? Nassau legislators Judy Jacobs and Judi Bosworth believe so . . . If Land's End is a tear-down, is any Gold Coast mansion safe? . . . In Huntington, the town board now says, sure, bulldoze the old Hotel Huntington for a drive-thru TD Bank? Do preservationists have any power at all?


LONG ISLANDER OF THE WEEK: SAMANTHA KJAERBYE

It's an iron rule of Long Island journalism: Wherever news breaks out in the world, someone from Long Island will be there. Fire, flood, war, pestilence: Our people travel. There's a local angle every time. So when a terrible earthquake struck Japan on Friday, the shaking hadn't even stopped when Rocky Point native Samantha Kjaerbye, 32, was hitting "send" on an email to Newsday. "We all crouched on the floor and prayed," she wrote. "Streets are packed . . . Phone isn't working, email is OK." Thanks, Samantha, for helping to tell the story. Amid all the sadness, we're glad you're okay.E-mail ellis@henican.com

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