Japan’s nuclear crisis has "verged toward catastrophe," according to a harrowing report in the New York Times. A third explosion occurred early this morning at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, located in northeastern Japan about 40 miles south of Sendai. All but 50 essential workers at the plant were evacuated, the government has urged residents within an 18 mile radius—a population of 140,000—to remain indoors, and large amounts of radiation have been released into the air, carried out over the Pacific by prevailing winds...for now.

Industry executives tell the Times that authorities "were close to losing control over the fuel melting that has been ongoing in three reactors" at Daiichi. "We are on the brink. We are now facing the worst-case scenario," says Hiroaki Koide, a senior reactor engineering specialist at the Research Reactor Institute of Kyoto University. “We can assume that the containment vessel at Reactor No. 2 is already breached. If there is heavy melting inside the reactor, large amounts of radiation will most definitely be released."

Officials said they managed to put out the fire at the No. 4 reactor, which was not in operation when the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck last Friday. But the reactor contains spent fuel rods, which can be almost as dangerous as a reactor meltdown because of the radiation they release if they catch fire. CNN reports that some fuel rods did indeed catch fire and cause a spike in radiation levels. At one point yesterday, radiation levels measured near the plant would cause acute radiation sickness after 75 minutes exposure.

"The million-dollar question," according to CNN analyst James Walsh, is whether the melting fuel rods will be contained. "The Japanese plants and all modern plants have a containment vessel. Essentially the reactor is inside of a vault. And that vault is made of thick concrete and steel... We'll know within 24 hours. That's the key thing people should be paying attention to." The radiation that's already been released may contaminate food and water resources, with children and unborn babies most at risk of possibly developing cancer, Reuters reports.

Meanwhile, about 850,000 households in the north of Japan were still without electricity in near-freezing weather, and officials estimate that 10,000 were killed by the earthquake and tsunami. In Tokyo, residents are stocking up on supplies and several embassies have urged their citizens to leave Japan. Air China suspended all flights out of Japan today, and the State Department advised US citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Japan. The LA Times reports that about 1,300 American citizens are thought to be in the northeastern area that sustained the worst damage from last week's earthquake.

At least 15,000 people have been rescued so far, including a 4-month-old girl who was found alive in the town of Ishimaki. But Boing Boing points out that fraudsters have beaten all records in setting up fake Japan relief pages, fielding more than 1.7 million malware pages, 419 scams trading on the Japanese disasters, 50+ fake domains with "Japan tsunami" or "Japan earthquake" in their URLs. And Andre Bakhos, director of market analytics at Lec Securities in New York, warns, "The earthquake could have great implications on the global economic front. If you shut down Japan, there could be a global recession."