Richard Harris

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.

Harris has traveled to all seven continents for NPR. His reports have originated from Timbuktu, the South Pole, the Galapagos Islands, Beijing during the SARS epidemic, the center of Greenland, the Amazon rain forest, the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro (for a story about tuberculosis), and Japan to cover the nuclear aftermath of the 2011 tsunami.
In 2010, Harris' reporting revealed that the blown-out BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was spewing out far more oil than asserted in the official estimates. That revelation led the federal government to make a more realistic assessment of the extent of the spill.

Harris covered climate change for decades. He reported from the United Nations climate negotiations, starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and including Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009. Harris was a major contributor to NPR's award-winning 2007-2008 "Climate Connections" series.

Over the course of his career, Harris has been the recipient of many prestigious awards. Those include the American Geophysical Union's 2013 Presidential Citation for Science and Society. He shared the 2009 National Academy of Sciences Communication Award and was a finalist again in 2011. In 2002, Harris was elected an honorary member of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society. Harris shared a 1995 Peabody Award for investigative reporting on NPR about the tobacco industry. Since 1988, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has honored Harris three times with its science journalism award.

Before joining NPR, Harris was a science writer for the San Francisco Examiner. From 1981 to 1983, Harris was a staff writer at The Tri-Valley Herald in Livermore, California, covering science, technology, and health issues related to the nuclear weapons lab in Livermore. He started his career as an AAAS Mass Media Science Fellow at the now-defunct Washington (DC) Star.

Harris is co-founder of the Washington, D.C., Area Science Writers Association, and is past president of the National Association of Science Writers. He serves on the board of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

A California native, Harris returned to the University of California-Santa Cruz in 2012, to give a commencement address at Crown College, where he had given a valedictory address at his own graduation. He earned a bachelor's degree at the school in biology, with highest honors.

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Science
5:15 pm
Tue October 9, 2012

Nobel In Physics: Your Tax Dollars At Work

In this combination of photos, American physicist David Wineland (left) speaks at a news conference in Boulder, Colo., and French physicist Serge Haroche speaks to the media in Paris after they were named winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics.
Ed Andrieski, Michel Euler AP

Originally published on Wed October 10, 2012 8:45 am

You wouldn't be surprised to learn that a laboratory run by the U.S. Department of Commerce is working on more precise methods to measure stuff.

However, you might not expect it to be at the cutting edge of the mind-bending world of quantum physics. But on Tuesday, David Wineland became the fourth employee at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, a federal lab, to win a Nobel since 1997. Wineland learned he will share the Nobel Prize in physics with Frenchman Serge Haroche for work that's both esoteric and practical.

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Research News
1:38 am
Thu September 27, 2012

Big Quakes Signal Changes Coming To Earth's Crust

A prison official examines the damage a day after a powerful earthquake hit the west coast of Indonesia in Banda Aceh on April 12.
Adek Berry AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Thu September 27, 2012 7:31 am

On April 11 of this year, an extraordinary cluster of earthquakes struck off Sumatra. The largest shock, magnitude 8.7, produced stronger ground-shaking than any earthquake ever recorded. And it surprised seismologists by triggering more than a dozen moderate earthquakes around the world.

The quakes are also a sign of big changes to come in the Earth's crust.

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Environment
4:03 pm
Mon September 24, 2012

As Arctic Ice Melts, So Does The Snow, And Quickly

Researchers say that springtime snow is melting in the Arctic even faster than Arctic ice. That means less sunlight is reflected off the surface. Bare land absorbs more solar energy, which can contribute to rising temperatures on Earth. Above, a musher races along the Iditarod in the Alaskan tundra in 2007.
Al Grillo AP

Originally published on Tue September 25, 2012 3:11 pm

Arctic sea ice is in sharp decline this year: Last week, scientists announced that it hit the lowest point ever measured, shattering the previous record.

But it turns out that's not the most dramatic change in the Arctic. A study by Canadian researchers finds that springtime snow is melting away even faster than Arctic ice. That also has profound implications for the Earth's climate.

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Science
3:43 pm
Tue September 11, 2012

'Astonishing' Arctic Ice Melt Sets New Record

Norman Kuring NASA/GSFC/Suomi

Originally published on Tue September 11, 2012 7:57 pm

Arctic sea ice has melted dramatically this summer, smashing the previous record. The Arctic has warmed dramatically compared with the rest of the planet, and scientists say that's what's driving this loss of ice.

To be sure, ice on the Arctic Ocean always melts in the summer. Historically, about half of it is gone by mid-September. But this year, three-fourths of the ice has melted away, setting a dramatic new benchmark.

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Shots - Health Blog
1:09 pm
Mon September 10, 2012

When Heat Kills: Global Warming As Public Health Threat

A man stands in a fountain in Washington Square Park on July 18, in New York City. Temperatures were expected in the upper 90's during another heat wave in the city.
Mario Tama Getty Images

Originally published on Thu September 13, 2012 9:26 am

The current poster child for global warming is a polar bear, sitting on a melting iceberg. Some health officials argue the symbol should, instead, be a child.

That's because emerging science shows that people respond more favorably to warnings about climate change when it's portrayed as a health issue rather than as an environmental problem.

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Environment
1:19 am
Tue September 4, 2012

As Temps Rise, Cities Combat 'Heat Island' Effect

An art installation of a melting fan sits on display in a subway station Thursday, June 9, 2011, in Atlanta.
David Goldman AP

Originally published on Tue September 4, 2012 3:10 pm

More than 20,000 high-temperature records have been broken so far this year in the United States. And the heat is especially bad in cities, which are heating up about twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

High temperatures increase the risk of everything from asthma to allergies, and can even be deadly. But a researcher in Atlanta also sees this urban heat wave as an opportunity to do something about our warming planet.

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Energy
3:14 pm
Thu August 23, 2012

Romney Energy Plan Touts Oil, Gas, Coal Production

In unveiling his energy policy during a campaign event on Thursday, Mitt Romney says he wants to set a goal of North American energy independence by 2020.
Evan Vucci AP

Originally published on Thu August 23, 2012 5:07 pm

Mitt Romney outlined an energy plan Thursday that would guide his Republican presidency. It focuses heavily on expanding the supply of fossil fuels. The presumptive nominee said the U.S., Mexico and Canada together could reach energy independence by 2020.

But the plan makes no mention of climate change and would end subsidies for cleaner sources of energy, such as wind and solar.

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Environment
2:34 pm
Wed August 22, 2012

Humans' Role In Antarctic Ice Melt Is Unclear

The Larsen B ice shelf, a large floating ice mass on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, shattered and separated from the continent 10 years ago. A NASA satellite captured the event in this image from Feb. 23, 2002. The 650 foot-thick, 1,250-square-mile ice shelf had existed since the last ice age.
AP

Originally published on Wed August 22, 2012 5:59 pm

Ten years ago, a piece of ice the size of Rhode Island disintegrated and melted in the waters off Antarctica. Two other massive ice shelves along the Antarctic Peninsula had suffered similar fates a few years before. The events became poster children for the effects of global warming. But a new study finds that the story isn't quite so simple.

There's no question that unusually warm air triggered the final demise of these huge chunks of ice. But a lingering question is whether these events can be attributed to human-induced global warming.

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World
1:27 am
Tue August 7, 2012

Growing Pains: Nations Balance Growth, Power Needs

Muslim girls study by candlelight inside a religious school in Noida, near New Delhi, on July 31. The collapse of three regional power grids last week caused a massive power outage that blacked out more than half of India.
Parivatran Sharma Reuters /Landov

Originally published on Wed August 8, 2012 12:39 pm

It may take some time to pinpoint the exact cause of India's massive blackouts last week, but the underlying issue for India and many other parts of the developing world is that supply is struggling to keep up with the growing demand for power — an imbalance that can affect the reliability of electric grids.

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Research News
3:40 am
Thu July 12, 2012

U.S. Feel Less Guilt About Environmental Choices

Originally published on Fri July 13, 2012 6:56 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

You might think that Americans, renowned for consuming a disproportionate share of the Earth's resources, would feel the most guilty about using up those resources. Not so, according to a new study. NPR's Richard Harris reports on the latest findings from a National Geographic project called Greendex.

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Science
2:45 am
Wed July 11, 2012

Researchers Take Stock Of 2011 Weather

Originally published on Wed July 11, 2012 4:30 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Across America people are sweltering through extreme heat this year, continuing a long-term trend of rising temperatures. Inevitably, many are wondering if the scorching heat is due to global warming. Scientists are expected to dig into the data and grapple with that in the months to come. They've already taken a stab at a possible connection with last year's extreme weather events, like the blistering drought in Texas. NPR's Richard Harris reports.

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Research News
1:25 am
Fri July 6, 2012

Dead Reefs Can Come Back To Life, Study Says

Coral polyps feed in the plankton-rich waters by Santa Catalina, Panama. A new study of coral reefs off the Pacific coast of Panama shows that dead coral reefs may be able to recover from rising ocean temperatures and other environmental disasters.
laszlo-photo Flickr

Originally published on Fri July 6, 2012 10:10 am

Coral reefs may be able to recover from disaster, according to a study that provides a bit of reassurance about the future of these endangered ecosystems.

Coral reefs around the world are at risk as the ocean's temperature continues to rise. Those trends could kill not only coral but also the fish and other species that depend on the reefs. Those reefs are important for people as well.

'Shocking' Reef History

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Science
10:08 am
Wed July 4, 2012

New Subatomic Particle May Be Physics' 'Missing Link'

This graphic depicts a proton-proton collision from the search for the Higgs boson particle.
CERN AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Thu July 5, 2012 5:51 am

Scientists have discovered a new subatomic particle with profound implications for understanding our universe. On Wednesday, they announced they've found a particle believed to be the long-awaited Higgs boson. Nicknamed the "God particle," it represents the final piece in a theory that explains the basic nature of our universe.

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Science
1:35 am
Mon July 2, 2012

Is The Hunt For The 'God Particle' Finally Over?

This image, from a sensor at the particle accelerator at CERN, is an example of the data signature a Higgs particle might generate.
CERN

Originally published on Mon July 2, 2012 7:17 am

Before we get to the fireworks on the Fourth of July, we might see some pyrotechnics from a giant physics experiment near Geneva, Switzerland.

Scientists there are planning to gather that morning to hear the latest about the decades-long search for a subatomic particle that could help explain why objects in our universe actually weigh anything.

The buzz is that they're closing in on the elusive Higgs particle. That would be a major milestone in the quest to understand the most basic nature of the universe.

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Energy
3:49 am
Sun July 1, 2012

Ahead Of Alaska Drilling, Shell Practices Cleaning Up

Trainees with Royal Dutch Shell learn to deploy oil spill booms in the waters near the port of Valdez in Alaska. The company is training about 200 spill responders.
Richard Harris NPR

Originally published on Mon July 2, 2012 11:02 am

Royal Dutch Shell could drill several exploratory oil wells into the waters off the north shore of Alaska this summer. The potential prize is huge, but so is the risk, should there be an oil spill in this pristine and remote region. And that risk is on everyone's mind since the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago.

Shell is now training hundreds of workers to confront oil in icy waters. But for now, the training is taking place in the calm, ice-free waters far to the south, near the port of Valdez.

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Science
4:22 am
Sat June 23, 2012

Rio+20 Summit Sustains Little More Than Sentiment

U.N. General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's Secretary of the Conference Luis Figueiredo Machado and Rio+20 Secretary General Sha Zukang attend the closing ceremony of the Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro on Friday.
Andre Penner AP

Originally published on Sat June 23, 2012 9:15 pm

The Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development was the biggest United Nations conference ever, but it may be one of the biggest duds. It produced no major agreements — just a vaguely worded declaration that has been widely derided.

More than 45,000 people registered for the event in Rio de Janeiro, but diplomats couldn't even agree about the meeting's objective until 2:45 a.m. on Tuesday, just before heads of state and other high-level delegates started arriving in Rio.

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Energy
4:11 pm
Tue June 19, 2012

Shell Faces Pushback As Alaska Drilling Nears

Shell says it hopes to never need to use its new 300-foot-long, $100 million oil recovery ship named Nanuq for anything other than drills and training.
Richard Harris NPR

Originally published on Tue June 19, 2012 4:59 pm

The federal government could soon give the final go-ahead for Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean. Shell has spent $4 billion since 2007 to prepare for this work, and is hoping to tap into vast new deposits of oil.

But the plan to drill exploratory wells is controversial — opposed by environmental groups and some indigenous people as well.

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Energy
1:15 am
Tue June 19, 2012

Rio Environment Meeting Focuses On 'Energy For All'

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during a news conference on June 7 at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Ban wants to focus on making energy available to the poorest populations of the world.
Andrew Burton Getty Images

Originally published on Tue June 19, 2012 7:48 am

Diplomats and activists from around the world are meeting in Rio de Janeiro this week to talk about how the planet's growing population can live better lives without damaging the environment. The Rio+20 meeting marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio, a watershed meeting to address topics as diverse as climate change and biodiversity.

At this follow-up meeting, delegates hope to highlight an issue that was almost absent from the Earth Summit: making energy available to everyone in the world.

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Animals
1:02 am
Tue June 5, 2012

Splish Splat? Why Raindrops Don't Kill Mosquitoes

When a raindrop hits a mosquito, the mosquito and drop join together, and the mosquito rides the drop for about a thousandth of a second before its wings, which act like kites, pull it out of the water.
CDC Public Health Image Library

Originally published on Tue June 5, 2012 6:53 am

Imagine how tough life would be if raindrops weighed 3 tons apiece as they fell out of the sky at 20 mph. That's how raindrops look to a mosquito, yet a raindrop weighing 50 times more than one can hit the insect and the mosquito will survive.

How?

Put yourself in a mosquito's shoes — or rain boots — for a moment and step outside into a downpour of seemingly gigantic raindrops.

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The Salt
10:45 pm
Tue May 29, 2012

Nuclear Tuna Is Hot News, But Not Because It's Going To Make You Sick

A Tokyo sushi restaurant displays blocks of fat meat tuna cut out from a 269kg bluefin tuna.
Yoshikazu Tsuno AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Wed May 30, 2012 3:17 am

What snarky headline writer could resist a story about "hot tuna?" Or how about "tuna meltdown?"

Really, it seems just plain daffy to ignore a new study that says some Pacific bluefin tuna picked up traces of radioactive material from the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year and brought it across the Pacific Ocean.

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Research News
3:10 pm
Thu May 17, 2012

Ancient Deep-Sea Bacteria Are In No Hurry To Eat

Researcher Hans Roy opens a core sample taken from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. A core sample like this one contained bacteria that settled on the seafloor 86 million years ago.
Bo Barker Jorgensen Science/AAAS

Originally published on Thu May 17, 2012 5:16 pm

Back when the dinosaurs ruled the Earth, some hardy bacteria took up residence at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Eighty six million years later, they're still there. And a new study says they're living out the most Spartan lifestyle known on this planet.

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Research News
3:58 pm
Thu May 10, 2012

Why Was A Huge 'Rogue Earthquake' Not Destructive?

Layers of earthquake-twisted ground are seen where the 14 freeway crosses the San Andreas Fault near Palmdale, Calif. The San Andreas Fault, like the kind that caused the huge earthquake off the coast of Indonesia, is a strike-slip fault, where the tectonic plates slide past each other.
David McNew Getty Images

Originally published on Thu May 10, 2012 8:50 pm

They're calling it a "rogue earthquake."

On April 11 of this year, one of the 10 biggest earthquakes ever recorded struck off the coast of Indonesia. It was felt from Bangladesh to Australia.

You may not have even heard of this magnitude 8.6 quake. It barely made the news in the U.S. because it did very little damage. Two people died, but there was no massive tsunami.

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Space
4:37 am
Sat May 5, 2012

Look Up: Tonight, 'Supermoon' Is Closer To Earth

The statue of Freedom, atop of the U.S. Capitol Building, is pictured against a "supermoon" on March 19, 2011.
Jewel Samad AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 8:49 am

Head outside at sunset tonight and look up at the sky. If the full moon seems a tad larger than normal to you, that means one of two things: You are exceptionally perceptive, or you were already expecting to be dazzled, after hearing some of the buzz about this year's "supermoon."

It turns out that all full moons are not created equal. That's because the moon's orbit around the Earth isn't a perfect circle — it's an ellipse. And tonight, we're in luck.

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Environment
3:11 pm
Thu May 3, 2012

Greenland's Ice Melting More Slowly Than Expected

Researchers studying Greenland's ice say it is melting more slowly than previously thought. Here, ice travels down a relatively small outlet glacier into the sea.
Ian Joughin UW, Sarah Das/WHOI and Richard Harris/NPR

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 8:50 am

A new study has some reassuring news about how fast Greenland's glaciers are melting away.

Greenland's glaciers hold enough water to raise sea level by 20 feet, and they are melting as the planet warms, so there's a lot at stake.

A few years ago, the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland really caught people's attention. In short order, this slow-moving stream of ice suddenly doubled its speed. It started dumping a whole lot more ice into the Atlantic. Other glaciers also sped up.

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Environment
3:08 pm
Thu April 26, 2012

Countries Losing Steam On Climate Change Initiatives

Germany plans to take all of its nuclear power plants offline by 2022, which means coal-fired power plants like the Kraftwerk Westfalen, in Hamm, Germany, will be a key component of the country's energy infrastructure.
Lars Baron Getty Images

Originally published on Thu April 26, 2012 4:27 pm

Energy ministers from around the world met in London this week and got a scolding. The International Energy Agency warned the ministers that they are falling way behind in their efforts to wean the world from dirty sources of energy. Nations are nowhere near being on track to avert significant climate change in the coming decades.

It turns out that right now, just about everything is conspiring to make it harder to clean up the world's energy supply.

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Environment
1:31 am
Tue April 24, 2012

Melt Or Grow? Fate Of Himalayan Glaciers Unknown

In this undated picture, Mount Everest, the world's tallest mountain at 29,029 feet, stands behind the Khumbu Glacier, one of the longest glaciers in the world. Nepal has more than 2,300 glacial lakes, and experts say at least 20 are in danger of bursting.
Subel Bhandari AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Tue April 24, 2012 8:14 am

The Himalayas are sometimes called the world's "third pole" because they are covered with thousands of glaciers. Water from those glaciers helps feed some of the world's most important rivers, including the Ganges and the Indus. And as those glaciers melt, they will contribute to rising sea levels.

So a lot is at stake in understanding these glaciers and how they will respond in a warming world. Researchers writing in the latest issue of Science magazine make it clear they are still struggling at that task.

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Environment
2:15 pm
Mon April 2, 2012

Gold Miners Dig Deep — To The Ocean Floor

A robotic arm breaks off a chunk of mineral-rich rock deep underwater. Nautilus Minerals of Australia hopes to develop and expand undersea mining by extracting copper, gold, silver and zinc from the seafloor.
Nautilus Minerals

Filmmaker James Cameron recently reminded us of the wonders of the sea by diving solo in a submarine to the deepest spot in the ocean. Next year, if all goes as planned, a rather different expedition will take place 1,000 miles south of that dive: An Australian company will start mining for copper, gold, silver and zinc on the seafloor off the shore of Papua New Guinea.

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Energy
1:57 am
Tue March 20, 2012

Native Alaskans Divided On State's Oil Drilling Debate

A drilling rig sits on Oooguruk Island off the coast of Alaska's North Slope. The 6-acre island was built by Pioneer Natural Resources so it could drill for oil on the Arctic Ocean.
Steve Quinn AP

Originally published on Tue March 20, 2012 7:06 am

Shell Oil plans to explore for petroleum off Alaska's north coast this summer. The native people of Alaska have a big stake in both oil revenue and environmental protection. That conflict has played out in recent trips by Inupiats to Washington, D.C., to argue their case.

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Remembrances
11:11 am
Tue March 13, 2012

F. Sherwood Rowland, Warned Of Aerosol's Danger

F. Sherwood Rowland, pictured here in 1989, was one of three chemists who shared the 1995 Nobel Prize for chemistry for work on discovering chemicals that deplete the Earth's ozone layer.
University of California AP

The man who warned us that aerosol spray-cans could destroy the earth's protective ozone layer has died.

F. Sherwood Rowland, better known as Sherry Rowland, was a Nobel-prize winning chemist at the University of California, Irvine. And he didn't just keep to the laboratory: He successfully advocated for a ban on ozone-destroying chemicals called CFCs.

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Rebuilding Japan
2:32 pm
Fri March 9, 2012

Crippled Japanese Reactors Face Decades Of Work

Last year's earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station. Foreign journalists saw cleanup and recovery work in process on Feb. 28.
Yoshikazu Tsuno AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 8:58 am

The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, lasted for many terrifying minutes. But the multiple nuclear meltdowns that followed created an emergency that lasted for weeks and a legacy that will last for decades.

Here's how the event unfolded. The tsunami knocked out power to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. As a result, the cooling systems failed and three reactors melted down. Steam laced with radioactive material poured into the air. Water contaminated with radiation also flowed into the sea.

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