Japan orders evacuation around plant
Updated: 2011-04-22 08:02
Residents speak to police officers on Thursday as they leave for Yamagata prefecture from Minamisoma, Fukushima prefecture, which is located within the 20 km evacuation zone around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Kyodo Via Reuters
TOKYO - Japan declared a 20-kilometer area evacuated around its radiation-spewing nuclear power plant a no-go zone on Thursday, urging residents to abide by the order for their own safety or possibly face fines or detention.
The order, due to take effect at midnight, angered residents who fled their homes nearly empty-handed when they were told to evacuate after last month's tsunami and earthquake wrecked the Fukushima Daiichi plant's power and cooling systems.
"I initially thought we would be able to return within a few days. So I brought nothing except a bank card," said Kazuko Suzuki, 49, from Futaba, just next-door to the nuclear complex.
"I really want to go back. I want to check if our house is still there," said Suzuki, who fled with her teenage son and daughter. "My patience has run out. I just want to go home."
Officials said the order was meant to limit exposure to radiation leaking from the plant and to prevent theft in the mostly deserted area.
Under a special nuclear emergency law, people who enter the zone will now be subject to fines of up to 100,000 yen ($1,200) or possible detention of up to 30 days. Up to now, defiance of the evacuation order was not punishable by law.
"We beg the understanding of residents. We really want residents not to enter the areas," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. "Unfortunately, there are still some people in the areas."
The new ruling was not due to any particular change in conditions inside the plant, which appear to have somewhat stabilized. Even under the best-case scenario, however, the plant's operator says it will take at least six months to bring its reactors safely into a cold shutdown.
Almost all the zone's nearly 80,000 residents left when the area was evacuated on March 12, but police had not been able to legally block them from going back. Police contacted on Thursday said they had no estimate of the exact number of people who have returned to the zone or who still might be living there.
Edano said authorities would arrange brief visits for residents, allowing one person per household to return by bus for a maximum of two hours to collect necessary belongings. Residents would be required to go through radiation screening, he said.
Residents chafed at the limit to just one person per household.
"It's outrageous. I can do very little within two hours. The government does not understand our needs and concerns," Suzuki said.
No visits will be allowed in a three km area closest to the plant, said Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, confirming reports that zone would be completely off-limits.
Details were still being worked out.
"We realize this is extremely inconvenient for residents, but we urge you to be patient," Edano told reporters in Tokyo.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan visited the region on Thursday, giving a pep talk to workers at a nuclear crisis management center in Fukushima. He has been under fire from the opposition for the government's response to the nuclear crisis, and some evacuees reportedly voiced frustration with him as well.
As he left an evacuation center, people called out, "Are you leaving already?" and "Are you going; ignoring us?" according to Kyodo News agency.
Fukushima's governor, who has also been critical of the government's performance, said he urged Kan to ensure the government properly handles the disaster and related compensation issues.
"I told the prime minister that I strongly hope that evacuees can return home as early as possible," said the governor, Yuhei Sato.
Meanwhile, new data from Japan's National Police Agency showed that two-thirds of the victims identified in last month's earthquake and tsunami were elderly - and almost all of them drowned.
The agency said 65 percent of the 11,108 confirmed fatalities of known age were 60 or older. Another 1,899 victims were of unknown age.
Support for TEPCO
The Japanese government is expected to announce as early as next week a financial support scheme for Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), the operator of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, sources said.
The government is considering setting up a fund that would buy preferred shares from TEPCO. The fund would provide loans to TEPCO for it to pay compensation to those affected by the crisis at the nuclear plant in northern Japan, the sources said.
Under the plans, the government will allow TEPCO to remain a private company listed on stock exchanges, they said.
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