What began Friday as a report on a local earthquake by Saturday had become the story of a great disaster, when chilling images emerged of the tsunami. By yesterday, the story had already become one of a great national crisis, the most serious Japan has seen since World War II.

From an estimated dozens, the number of victims leaped to thousands, and yesterday, it became clear that tens of thousands could be dead.

The Japanese are used to natural disasters, but this time, in addition to the earthquake and the tsunami, there is a third component - a radioactive leak threatening to turn into a nuclear disaster. The trauma of the atom bombs stirs greater anxiety than natural disasters.

A few months ago, the Japanese offered Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Ararbia nuclear reactors to produce electricity. They said Japanese reactors were safer than others. And now, four of these reactors have been damaged by the combined onslaught of the earthquake and the tsunami, and could emit radioactivity that might endanger the lives and health of millions.

The inability of such safe reactors to withstand major natural disasters casts a pall over the feasibility of building more reactors in Japan or elsewhere.

The reactors, which provide about one-third of Japan's electricity, were to have reduced its dependence on Middle Eastern oil, which it was feared might stop flowing in the event of war or revolt. And now, a political and social tsunami has struck the Middle East. If construction is stopped on more nuclear reactors, that could raise the price of the black gold even further and hurt the global economy which was just in the process of recovery.

Contrary to what many people believe, the Japanese constitution does not prohibit nuclear weapons. It does prohibit the establishment of an army and the right to make war, but the Japanese have bypassed this by arguing that a military force is permissible for defensive purposes.

Currently, the legal or illegal Japanese army is one of the most advanced in the world.

The same claim could be made in the future to justify the development of nuclear weapons.

How long will it take Japan to recover from the earthquake and the tsunami? In wealthy developed countries, rehabilitation after natural and man-made disasters has been relatively swift. The Japanese city of Kobe, where 6,000 people were killed in an earthquake in 1995, was on its feet within 18 months. Rebuilding will not be simple because Japan's national debt is nearly 200 percent of its gross domestic product, and because of its aging population. But past dangers and disasters have roused the Japanese to greater action. Let us hope that will be the case this time as well.