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Japan: living in nuclear limbo

If there is one place that encapsulates the scope of the tragedy visited on Japan last month, it is Minamisoma.

The decision to expand the evacuation zone came on the same day that officials raised the severity of the Fukushima accident to a maximum 7, placing it on a par with Chernobyl.

Contamination levels at the Japanese plant are only one-tenth of that released by the Soviet reactor, but the initial leak of radiation and concerns over the long-term health of nearby residents left the government with little choice but declare Fukushima Daiichi a major disaster.

That has added to pressure on the plant’s operator to help those whose lives have been disrupted. On Friday, the government ordered Tokyo Electric Power Co. [TEPCO] to compensate tens of thousands of households forced to evacuate.

About 48,000 households within roughly 20 miles of the plant will be eligible for provisional damages, which have been set at 1 million yen ($12,000) per family and 750,000 yen for single-person households.

The bill will reach 50 billion yen, Masataka Shimizu, TEPCO’s president, told reporters. Additional compensation claims expected from farmers and fishermen in the area could see the total rise much higher.

Japan’s federation of agricultural cooperatives also demanded swift compensation amid bans on the sale of certain produce and unfounded contaminated rumors that have hit sales of healthy fruit and vegetables from the region.”

The federation said TEPCO had failed to explain the impact of radiation leaks on local agriculture, or pay damages. “This is totally unacceptable,'' the group said in a letter delivered to the company.

''The foundation of agriculture in the [affected] regions itself is threatened. This could result in farmers suspending their activities over a long period, or even abandoning agriculture entirely.”

Compensation aside, even Okawa concedes that a quick return to normality may prove as elusive as a solution to the nuclear crisis unfolding a few miles to the south.

“As long as the power plant is in trouble, this town might as well be dead. You walk to the station and everything is shuttered. At night the streets are dark and empty. This used to be a fun, lively lace to live. But not any more.”