TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said on Friday he was ready for a long fight to bring a quake-hit nuclear plant under control but was convinced Japan would overcome the world's worst nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
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"I am prepared for a long-term battle over the Fukushima nuclear plant and to win this battle," he said in a nationally broadcast news conference as the country marked three weeks since a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered the crisis.
"We cannot say that the plant has been sufficiently stabilized. But we are preparing for all kinds of situations and I am convinced that the plant can be stabilized," Kan said, promising a quake relief budget by the end of April.
As Tokyo Electric Power Co tries to regain control of its stricken nuclear plant in the face of mounting public criticism and a huge potential compensation bill, the government was reportedly moving to take control of the utility.
Kan said the government had to "responsibly" support TEPCO as it faced obligations to compensate for the accident. But he said he wanted the firm to continue to "work hard as a private company".
The utility may have to deal with compensation claims topping $130 billion, according to one US investment bank.
In the devastated northeast, many Japanese still see only the splintered remains of their homes and lives after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that left more than 28,000 people dead or missing and damaged six nuclear reactors.
Japan's Nuclear and Industry safety Agency (NISA) says radiation may be continuously flowing out into the sea.
Radiation 4,000 times the legal limit has been detected in seawater near the plant as contaminated water used to cool down reactor rods leaks into the ocean, and high levels of radiation outside a 20 km (12 mile) exclusion zone have put pressure on Japan to widen the restricted area.
"They are throwing water on what they can't see and hoping that they don't get more radiation out. They are flying blind, partially, at least," said Ed Lyman, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a US nuclear safety watchdog group.
More than 172,400 people were still living in shelters around northeast Japan. Many devastated areas looked like rubbish-strewn junk yards, with cars lodged in the side of toppled buildings and boats still high and dry on roads.
More than 70,000 have been evacuated from the exclusion ring and another 136,000 who live in a 10-km (6-mile) zone beyond that have been encouraged to leave or to stay indoors.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the evacuation of people from near the damaged Fukushima Daiichi complex, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, would be a long-term operation.
Nuclear experts say it could take years, possibly decades, to make the area around the plant safe.
With thousands still missing and many areas off-limits to rescuers due to the high levels of radiation, Japanese and U.S. forces will soon begin a joint search for bodies.
The recovery of the bodies of up to 1,000 people killed by the tsunami has been delayed by fears that they are contaminated, police told Kyodo news.
The damage bill may top $300 billion, making it the world's costliest natural disaster and raising concerns about the world's third-biggest economy.
Japanese manufacturing activity slumped to a two-year low in March and posted the sharpest monthly fall on record as the quake and tsunami hit supply chains and output.
Japan's government may need to spend over 10 trillion yen ($120 billion) in emergency budgets for disaster relief and reconstruction, the country's deputy finance minister, Mitsuru Sakurai, signaled on Thursday. EMERGENCY NUCLEAR WORKERS RECRUITED
Nuclear workers have been offered up to 400,000 yen ($5,000) per day to work in risky high-radiation conditions inside reactors at the Fukushima plant, according to Japanese media.
TEPCO says it was considering using "jumpers", or workers who rush into highly radioactive reactors for quick jobs, such as installing water pumps, then "jump" out to avoid prolonged exposure to radiation. The practice was common in the United States in the 1970s and early 80s.
France is a global leader in the nuclear industry and Paris has flown in experts from state-owned nuclear reactor maker Areva to work with Japanese engineers.
Areva has also shipped 11,000 hazmat suits and thousands of protective breathing masks to be used in and around the nuclear plants.
The United States and Germany are sending robots to work in the highly radioactive parts of the reactors. Kyodo said around 140 US military radiation safety experts would arrive.
US nuclear workers were also being recruited to join the recovery teams at Fukushima and will begin flying in on Sunday.
"These are not 'jumpers' rushing into a room. TEPCO is bringing in
robots to help limit human exposure to high levels of radiation," said
Joe Melanson, a recruiter at specialist nuclear industry staffing firm
Bartlett Nuclear in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Japan's NISA has warned TEPCO to ensure the health of workers after it
was reported the company did not have enough radiation dosemeters.
The Japanese disaster has revived the debate over the safety and
benefits of atomic power. In Switzerland a parcel bomb exploded at the
office of the national nuclear lobby, injuring two employees. It was not
known who sent it.
France -- the most nuclear-dependent country in the world -- has called
for new global nuclear rules and proposed a global conference in France.
Illustrating the terrible, surreal times through which Japan is living,
one newborn baby's first medical appointment was not with a pediatrician
but a Geiger counter.
"I am so scared about radiation," Misato Nagashima said as she took her
baby Rio, born four days after the earthquake and disaster, for a
screening at a city in Fukushima prefecture.
Food and milk shipments from the region have been stopped, devastating
the livelihoods of farmers and fishermen. Various countries have banned
food imports from the area.
But life in Tokyo, Japan's capital of 13 million people, was slowly
returning to normal after the early days of the disaster when train
services were patchy, workers stayed home and groceries like bread,
milk, toilet paper and diapers were rare.
Yet Tokyo residents still worry about the spread of radiation and another big quake.
"I only go as far from home as I can walk back and I take emergency gear
with me," said Noriko Ariura, rummaging in a bag holding a radio,
flashlight, bottled water and medicine.