For a lesson in the compounding effects of surprising events, go back to a March afternoon in 2011: A powerful earthquake hits 40 miles off the eastern coast of Japan. The country’s building codes ensure that most structures can cope with even this major stress, but a resulting tsunami pounds the shore, unexpectedly breaches the sea walls, and ends up killing most of the more than 15,800 who die in this disaster.
The wave also knocks out the cooling system at a major nuclear-power plant situated on the coast, causing a meltdown. In time, the prime minister admits that the accident could have gotten out of control, forcing the abandonment of Tokyo, which would have crippled Japan. Citizens of the resource-poor country advocate abandoning nuclear power; analysts say that relying on imported coal or liquified natural gas could raise Japan’s carbon emissions by 37 percent. The meltdown hobbles a renaissance for nuclear power in the United States, and miscommunication about the disaster leads to upheaval in the Japanese government.