Japanese authorities have elected to make a recommended evacuation zone around the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear powerplant compulsory and ordered residents of some communities beyond the zone to evacuate, despite the fact that radiation levels beyond the plant fence are dropping steadily and are nowhere such as to cause health concerns.
"Unfortunately, there are still some people in the areas," chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano told reporters, announcing the new measures. "Today... we have decided to designate the area an emergency area based on disaster law."
People can no longer enter the 20 km recommended evacuation area around the Daiichi plant, apart from brief 2 hour visits with permission from police by one household member per home to collect belongings. Anyone breaking the rules could face a ¥100,000 (£750) fine or 30 days in prison. Nobody at all except plant workers is allowed within 3km of the plant.
Some communities beyond the 20km limit have also been evacuated following detection of elevated radiation and recommendations from the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), which has a monitoring team in the area. These towns and villages are Katsurao, Kawamata, Namie, Minami Souma and Iitate, with the highest radiation readings seen at Iitate.
Radiation dose rates at Iitate dropped below 10 microsievert/hour as of March 25 and are now below 5 microsievert/hour. If the Iitate dose rate stabilised permanently now, people living there would sustain annual dose rates of 44 millisievert. If levels continue to descend along the curve seen thus far the dose in the first year would be below 20 millisievert and less thereafter.
Nuclear powerplant workers, whose cancer rate is somewhat lower than in the general population (probably because they don't smoke so much) are allowed to sustain 50 millisievert in any one year in normal times and average doses across five years of 20 millisievert/yr.
More than 140,000 people who live in the Indian states of Kerala and Madras receive average doses above 15 millisievert every single year of their lives from background radiation. Many Brazilians and Sudanese sustain background doses up to 40 millisievert/year: at some locations the annual background dose rises above 50 millisievert. The 70,000 residents of the Iranian resort town of Ramsar on the Caspian Sea can sustain annual doses of 250 millisievert, due to the presence of radiactive hot springs in the area.
None of these areas are being evacuated, though they are much more radiologically dangerous than the area around Fukushima Daiichi. Even at the plant fence the dose rate measured yesterday (24 microsievert/hour) is less than a resident of Ramsar sustains normally.
Edano admitted that the evacuation orders are not required by measured dose rates, and described them as "precautionary". He overrode protests from residents of Minami Souma, where dose rates have never been high and are now down below the amounts received by airline crew or Madras residents.
One week after the crisis broke, the renowned US nuclear engineer Ted Rockwell wrote:
In Japan, you have radiation zealots threatening to order people out of their homes, to wander, homeless and panic-stricken, through the battered countryside, to do what? All to avoid a radiation dose lower than what they would get from a ski trip.
People forcibly evacuated from communities near Fukushima will probably have to join the large numbers of refugees from the quake and tsunami living under arduous conditions in temporary accomodation of various kinds.
"All I can say is that Tepco will be held liable and they will be made to make full compensation to sufferers of this incident," stated Edano.
However there can be little doubt that most of the dislocation and incovenience caused by Fukushima Daiichi is now the fault of the government rather than the plant operator. ®