The Japanese government is urging residents who live between 20 and 30 kilometers from crippled Fukushima nuclear plant to voluntarily evacuate the region, citing the difficulties of daily life there and the possibility of more radiation leaks.

Prior to this, people in these areas had been advised to stay indoors.

The measure is being seen as a sign that there is little chance the crisis at the power plant will ease anytime soon.

(By comparison, the U.S. has recommended that its nationals stay at least 80 kilometers away from the plant.)

Although Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano has emphasized that current radiation levels around the plant do not require immediate evacuation, he said notices have been delivered to municipal governments in the region on what to do in the event of a mandatory evacuation order.

With the lack of business and logistics, people's lives are becoming increasingly difficult within the 20 to 30 km radius, and we cannot rule out the possibility that more radioactive material might leak and an evacuation order be issued, he said.

Based on this situation, municipalities need to expedite their living support and voluntary evacuation of residents, as well as prepare for a scenario in which an immediate evacuation order is issued.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that residents have already been quietly departing the area around Fukushima, even without an order from Tokyo.

“What we’ve been finding is that in that area life has become quite difficult,” Noriyuki Shikata, deputy cabinet secretary for Prime Minister Naoto Kan, told the Times.

“People don’t want to go into the zone to make deliveries.”

NHK, the Japanese TV broadcaster, quoted a Land Self Defense Force official as saying, “We’re trying to quickly locate everyone who remains, so that we can rapidly help in case the nuclear plant situation worsens.”

The recent news that the reactor vessel of the No. 3 unit at Fukushima might be damaged will likely speed up the exodus, although Kan has avoided saying that a mandatory evacuation order is imminent.

“The situation still requires caution,” Kan told his countrymen. “Our measures are aimed at preventing the circumstances from getting worse.”

Kan also apologized to the businesses and farmers in the Fukushima area whose lives and jobs have been endangered by the plant.