Nuclear Exclusion Zones Arise Around Fukushima

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The news has been relatively good recently out of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), the plant’s operator, last week reported success in sharply reducing radiation levels within the plant, and in stabilizing temperatures in the pools of water need to store used nuclear fuel rods. While radiation is still leaking from the plant, levels have fallen to one-10 millionth of the amounts seen in the immediate aftermath of the meltdown in March.

But Fukushima’s struggles are far from over—and it looks like they may last even longer than anyone had expected. Today the Japanese government reported that higher than expected levels of radioactive contamination may keep areas around the Fukushima nuclear plant off-limits for human habitation for years, or even decades. From Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano:

There are areas near the nuclear power plant where the level of radiation is very high and it cannot be denied that there may be areas where it will be difficult for the residents to return for a long time.

I am very sorry for that.

More from TIME: A Long Road to Recovery

The 90,000 residents who live within a 12.4 mile (20 km) radius of the stricken plant—nearly all of whom have been homeless for more than five months—are likely to be a lot sorrier. Government data shows that some areas within the evacuation zone are contaminated with the radiation equivalent of more than 500 millisieverts a year—25 times higher than Tokyo’s safety limit for annual exposure. Even if TEPCO can completely halt the leakage of radiation from the plant, those levels mean that thousands of homes may remain too contaminated to live in for years or decades, as the case has been with the exclusion zone that now surrounds the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine.

The immediate question for the government—if indeed Tokyo decides to declare a Chernobyl-like exclusion zone around Fukushima Daiichi—will be how to compensate the tens of thousands of residents who may have to move permanently. Prime Minister Naoto Kan—who should really adopt “embattled” as his new first name—will reportedly visit the region soon to apologize to community leaders. One solution might simply be for the government to rent the uninhabitable land from residents for as it takes to decontaminate the soil—though expect difficult fights over how large the exclusion zone should be, and how long it should remain off-limits to human beings. As Geoff Brumfiel of Nature points out in a blog post, it’s far from clear what numbers or criteria the Japanese government might use for radiation safety.

For those in Japan who’ve fought against nuclear power, news of the lingering contamination will be one more reason to get the country off atomics. And the data also complicates the counterintuitive arguments of those who say the Fukushima meltdown actually demonstrates that nuclear power isn’t that dangerous. While there are ongoing debates about just how dangerous different levels of radiation really are, it’s hard to imagine anyone willingly moving back to an area that’s been declared contaminated. And in a crowded country like Japan—with 836 people per sq. mile—there are large populations living next to nearly every nuclear reactor in the country. The loss of that land won’t be forgotten, and may hasten the closing of Japan’s nuclear fleet, which supplies 30% of its electricity.

Photos from TIME: Revisiting Japan’s Ground Zero

Of course, there are always tradeoffs. As the New York Times‘s Hiroko Tabuchi wrote over the weekend, Japan has already had to reopen expensive and polluting fossil-fuel power plants to meet the shortfall caused by shutting down many nuclear reactors for safety checks, despite the benefits of an unprecedented conservation effort that has sharply reduced the country’s demand for energy:

As its nuclear program implodes, Japan is grappling with a jump in fuel costs, making an economic recovery from the March earthquake and tsunami all the more difficult. Annual fuel expenses could rise by more than 3 trillion yen, or about $39 billion, the government says.

The country, until recently a vocal proponent of measures to curb climate change, is also leaving a bigger carbon footprint. According to government calculations, Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions could rise by as much as 210 million metric tons, or 16 percent, by 2013 from 1990 levels if its nuclear reactors were shut permanently. Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a global agreement on greenhouse gas emissions, Japan promised to reduce its emissions by 6 percent over that period.

Prime Minister Kan has said that he wants to see 20% of Japan’s energy to come from renewables by 2020—up from perhaps 1% now—but the country’s small size is going to make that goal tough to reach. Solar and wind, after all, require much, much more physical space than nuclear to produce the same amount of energy.

Video from TIME: After the Tsunami, Braving the Radiation to Return Home

As my colleague Krista Mahr recently wrote for TIME’s international edition, the Fukushima disaster is hardly the first time Japan has had to rebound from catastrophe:

Five months after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that killed as many as 22,000 people and displaced nearly 125,000 others, Fukushima prefecture is still struggling to clean up and move on. The slow pace of recovery raises the question: Which Japan will win out in the aftermath of the tragedy? Will it be the resilient nation that rose from the ashes of World War II or the country that has become better known over the past two decades for its economic and social torpor?

However Japan responds, it’s increasingly clear that the legacy of Fukushima will linger—like that radioactive contamination—for decades.

More from Ecocentric: Lessons from Fukushima

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME