We haven’t heard a lot about the Fukushima nuclear disaster lately, but this story reminds us how really bad it was and remains:

Japan’s science ministry says 8 per cent of the country’s surface area has been contaminated by radiation from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant.

It says more than 30,000 square kilometres of the country has been blanketed by radioactive caesium.

The ministry says most of the contamination was caused by four large plumes of radiation spewed out by the Fukushima nuclear plant in the first two weeks after meltdowns.

The government says some of the radioactive material fell with rain and snow, leaving the affected areas with accumulations of more than 10,000 becquerels of caesium per square metre.

This doesn’t come from an investigative report where you might have to assess the reliability of the source. It comes from the Japanese science ministry. If anything, we could expect that it lowballs the actual level of radiation, if there were any political meddling involved. So I’d argue that at least 8% of the surface of Japan is contaminated.

Now, what does contaminated mean? Does it mean unlivable? So far, it appears that this extends mostly to agriculture. Tests from last week found contamination above the maximum allowable level in recently harvested rice in the Fukushima area. Other food like beef, mushrooms and green tea have had radiation scares recently as well. That is likely to be a lingering problem, which is a crushing blow to the Japanese economy, requiring more imports and a lower balance of trade. We saw with the mad cow disease scare of previous years that just the appearance of impropriety on this front is enough to collapse agriculture exports.

But agriculture could be the least of the nation’s worries. If the surface area becomes uninhabitable, it adds massive relocation and cleanup costs to an already crippling series of liabilities from the Fukushima nightmare. The fear arising from the threat of radiation – which can often be more outsized than the actual problem – is enough to set a lot of these costs in motion. In short, you have an unfolding catastrophe in Japan, one of the world’s leading economies. I know that everyone is looking to Europe as the main driver of economic malaise these days, but even with the supply chains largely fixed, the Japanese disaster has really had serious economic impacts. And that’s to say nothing of the potential human toll.

Yet all over the world, including right here, governments continue to backstop the creation of nuclear power plants, setting the conditions for another disaster like Fukushima.