The ongoing struggle to snuff out the nuclear crisis occurred amid mounting confusion about key elements of risk now in play. At a hearing in Washington on Wednesday, the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Gregory Jaczko, called the radiation levels at one of the plant's units "extremely high." He added that "for a comparable situation in the United States, we would recommend evacuation for a much larger radius than is currently being provided in Japan." And he said his information suggested that there was no water left in the pool containing the spent fuel rods in Reactor 4, an assertion which, if true, makes a significant release of radioactive gases from the burning fuel rods stored there much more likely.
On Thursday morning, the Japanese government responded to Jaczko's assertions. Government spokesman Noriyuki Shikata said, "We have not received radiation levels that are alarming." The Japanese nuclear regulatory agency, however, has acknowledged that it doesn't know if there is water left in the pool. Spokesman Yoshitaka Nagayama told reporters, "Because we have been unable to go to the scene, we cannot confirm whether there is water left or not in the spent fuel pool at Reactor No. 4." By Thursday evening, national broadcaster NHK was saying that a report had come from one of the Self-Defense Forces helicopters that had dumped seawater saying there was water present in the storage pool, but how much was unclear.
The hard reality is that the moment radiation levels began to rise, the complexity of the issue rose, and the likelihood of further disaster rose. It is just vastly harder to cool the rods when you can't get close or stay more than a few minutes in proximity. Helicopter water drops end up being drops in buckets.
The situation is particularly painful for those in the radiation zone:
Aid agencies are reluctant to get too close to the plant. Shelters set up in the greater Fukushima area for "radiation refugees" have little food, in part because nobody wants to deliver to an area that might be contaminated. And with little or no petrol available, not everyone who wants to leave can get out. Radiation fears are mingling with a sickening sense of abandonment.
"People who don't have family nearby, who are old or sick in bed, or couldn't get petrol, they haven't been able to get away from the radiation," said Emi Shinkawa, who feels doubly vulnerable. Her house was swept away by the tsunami.
Her daughter, Tomoko Monma, knows she is lucky: At 9am on Wednesday, she piled her family into the car, thankful for her husband's foresight in setting aside enough petrol for them to make their escape.
But she is angry that people living outside the 20-kilometre evacuation zone around the nuclear plant were not given help finding public transport or the fuel to drive away in their own cars. Ms Monma, 28, lives 33 kilometres from the plant.
"We've got no help. We've got no information," she said as she cradled her two-year-old daughter on the tatami mats that had been laid out in a sports centre in Yamagata, 160 kilometres inland, which now serves as a shelter for people fleeing Fukushima.
The echoes of Katrina, of New Yorkers breathing debris from 9/11 are strong here. And the lesson - that in a true crisis, most of us are on our own to make hard decisions with little information or support seems to be universal across cultures.
As people in Tokyo worry about the drastically expanding danger
A lot of people are worried about radiation effects in areas more distant than Japan - MIT has a useful guide to radiation health effects here.
This is creating some interesting shortages, as people buy things rumored to help with radiation toxicity:
China has repeatedly said its citizens face no imminent threat of radiation contamination from the Fukushima nuclear plant, 620 miles from the easternmost part of the country.
But it gave out mixed messages by checking all incoming food imports for radiation, and many pharmacists said yesterday they had sold out of potassium iodide tablets.
"We are sold out of iodine, and of two other drugs," said an employee at Shanghai Pharmaceutical. "We have been trying to tell people they do not need these drugs, but they simply walk in and grab them off the shelves anyway."
In Russia, memories of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine prompted bulk buying of seaweed and red wine.
At the time of the world's worst nuclear accident, the former Soviet government recommended seaweed, which contains iodine, and red wine, which helps block radiation because of its tannin content.
In the far east of Russia, chemists were running out of products containing iodine, while face masks and dosimeters, which measure radiation, were also in short supply. Sales of vodka were also up following rumours it could help block radiation.
As usual, the press's take on stocking up is "these stupid panicked people are idiots." In fact, while people may not fully grasp the implications, they are responding to a real recognition that they might not be told the truth by their governments, and to real potential shortfalls of necessary supplies by governments that haven't prepared. Don't get me wrong - I don't recommend anyone take potassium iodide unless actual documented radiation levels support it - you need your thyroid. But I do think that the media portrayal of people responding by attempting to protect themselves denies the fact that most of us *know* we cannot always trust governments to act in our best interest or tell us the truth. This is not a wholly irrational response, even though vodka, red wine and soy sauce are not, in fact, useful against radiation.
At this stage Pacific danger from winds and radiation is speculative - watch the data, watch the weather. It seems like the immediate risk is to the Japanese, who are about to see a major shift to onshore winds, expanding the potential danger radius significantly.
This is a hard story to follow - there is so much uncertainty. But the message in the end is the same as Katrina - if such a disaster befalls you, you and your neighbors will be left to "get out the boats" - to rescue yourselves and the most vulnerable.