MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The U.S. is blocking imports of food from four Japanese prefectures around the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Japan has also banned the sale of milk and leafy vegetables from the area after finding elevated levels of radiation in some products. The ongoing nuclear crisis is now affecting a significant part of northeastern Japan.
NPR's Jason Beaubien was in Fukushima City today, about 40 miles from the plant.
JASON BEAUBIEN: At the Azuma Sports Complex in Fukushima City, 1,300 people now live in the gymnasiums, workout rooms and hallways. Most of the people sleeping on the floors here are evacuees who were ordered out of the 12-mile exclusion zone around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Fifty-year-old Noriko Imura is staying at the shelter with two of her children. She's from the town of Namie, which is about five miles from the reactor.
Ms. NORIKO IMURA: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Imura says there's no way she can feel safe in Namie right now. It's too close to the plant. She says she's happy to be here at this sports complex.
As snow blows outside, it's still chilly in the facility, but volunteers pass out blankets and sweaters. Food is distributed three times a day. The water is drinkable. Imura has no idea when or if she'll be able to return home.
Ms. IMURA: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: We've heard that it could be years, maybe even tens of years before we are allowed back, Imura says. It's possible that Namie will cease to exist.
In downtown Fukushima City, roughly 200 emergency management officials are crammed into a government office building. This is the local war room for monitoring the nuclear disaster. Technicians update charts with the latest radiation readings, phones ring and bureaucrats race in and out.
Mr. KIKO KATSUHIRO: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Kiko Katsuhiro, a spokesman for the emergency management team, flips through a binder with charts of radiation levels in different parts of the prefecture. He says the radiation levels are highest closest to the reactor, and this has led to the ban on milk and leafy vegetables produced in the entire area.
Mr. KATSUHIRO: (Through translator) The standard that the entire country of Japan has decided on is that once a certain amount of radiation is detected in these vegetables, these products, that we cannot sell them anymore. This has happened here, therefore we have taken the appropriate measures.
BEAUBIEN: Government officials in Tokyo say local farmers will be compensated for the products they're not allowed to sell.
This area was also affected by the earthquake and tsunami. The bullet train and the regular trains that come through here are shut down. The local ports are all closed and the highways are only open to emergency vehicles. A manager at a local paper products factory says he can't get technicians to come in and restart his presses. Gasoline is in short supply. And most businesses in Fukushima City remain shut.
The mayor of Fukushima, Seto Takanori, says here, 30 miles from the coast, there wasn't very much earthquake damage.
Mayor SETO TAKANORI (Fukushima, Japan): (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: The issue we are dealing with now is the effects of the radiation, the mayor says, and whether the radiation will increase. He says no one wants to come here because they're afraid. Farmers don't know if they'll be able to sell their products. If conditions at the plant deteriorate, the exclusion zone around the nuclear plant might be expanded to include Fukushima City.
The mayor says people here are worried, even though the government says they shouldn't be, about the air they're breathing and the water they're drinking. But he says if the winds shift and the radiation increases, he's not leaving.
Mayor TAKANORI: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: We live our lives here. We're all together here. When you think about that, he says, it's impossible for us to leave here.
Takanori says the situation facing Fukushima City is not Hiroshima or Nagasaki after the nuclear bombs went off. It's not Chernobyl. But his city also isn't what it was just two weeks ago.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.