The Fukushima nuclear disaster fell off the front pages this summer, and the media stopped monitoring the day-by-day battle at the stricken plant. If you didn’t think about it, you might be excused for believing that the worst was avoided. But the truth is much more ominous. The Japanese government is preparing to declare a large zone around the plant uninhabitable, probably for decades, due to contamination at unsafe levels.

The formal announcement, expected from the government in coming days, would be the first official recognition that the March accident could force the long-term depopulation of communities near the plant, an eventuality that scientists and some officials have been warning about for months. Lawmakers said over the weekend — and major newspapers reported Monday — that Prime Minister Naoto Kan was planning to visit Fukushima Prefecture, where the plant is, as early as Saturday to break the news directly to residents. The affected communities are all within 12 miles of the plant, an area that was evacuated immediately after the accident.

The government is expected to tell many of these residents that they will not be permitted to return to their homes for an indefinite period. It will also begin drawing up plans for compensating them by, among other things, renting their now uninhabitable land. While it is unclear if the government would specify how long these living restrictions would remain in place, news reports indicated it could be decades. That has been the case for areas around the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine after its 1986 accident.

I’m very unclear on how land that’s uninhabitable will be rented. Maybe that’s a nice way of saying that the government will buy their properties, or more to the point buy their affections.

I doubt there’s a demarcation at 12 miles, and the area is perfectly fine for living at mile 13. At Chernobyl the images of deformities among local residents, outside the exclusion zone, are horrifying. I don’t think you can know exactly how far away you need to be for safety’s sake.

This is, or at least should be, part of the pricing of nuclear power. These disasters have a real effect on human life, and if you want to get more banal, on national productivity. There just isn’t the same kind of calculation for other kinds of renewable energy.