Japan expands nuclear evacuation zone to 20 km

More than 130,00 are homeless after quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that left 28,000 dead; Japanese PM faces refugees' ire.

japan pm naoto kan 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
japan pm naoto kan 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
TOKYO - Japan said on Thursday it would ban people entering the 20-km (12-mile) evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant north of Tokyo, weeks after the tsunami-wrecked facility began leaking radiation.
Tens of thousands of people left the zone after the March 11 quake smashed the power station, operated by Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), but some have since returned to their homes to collect belongings as the utility struggles to contain the world's most serious nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.
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Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference that as of midnight on Thursday, people will only be allowed into the zone under government supervision.
"The setting of the no-entry zone and (last month's) evacuation instruction are aimed at securing the safety of the people," Edano said.
"We will take strict legal measures against those trying to enter the area," he said. "For residents, all I can say is I ask for their understanding so that no legal action will be taken against them."
Those breaking the ban can be fined up to 100,000 yen ($1,200) or face temporary detention by police.
TEPCO has said it may take the rest of the year or longer to bring the plant under control.
More than 130,000 people are still living in school gymnasiums and other shelters more than a month after the March 11 quake and tsunami that left some 28,000 dead or missing.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan tasted their ire when he visited a Fukushima evacuation center on Thursday.
"Are you leaving? shouted a man as Kan and his entourage headed for the door. "We are evacuees. Are you just going to ignore us?"
Kan turned back, apologized and was berated.
"You should bring cabinet ministers here and let them try living here themselves. How do you think we feel? We want you to somehow get the nuclear plant under control," one woman said.
A subdued Kan replied: "The government as a whole is doing our best to implement the timetable without delay or speed it up." He then tried to depart but was again called back.
TEPCO wants a "cold shutdown" of the plant, 240 km (150 miles) from the capital, within six to nine months, a timeline experts say will be tough to meet.
This week it began pumping highly contaminated water from one of the reactors, a key step towards repairing the cooling system that regulates the temperature of radioactive fuel rods.
TEPCO insists that while fuel rods at three of its six reactors were damaged when they partially melted after the quake, they are not in "meltdown".
Later on Thursday, Kan will meet Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who is visiting Japan.
Gillard expressed confidence that Japan could rebuild and promised Australia would stay a reliable energy source for Tokyo , which must compete with an insatiable China.
"Japan can rely on Australia at a time when you have never needed these resources more," Gillard told Japanese business leaders, adding Australia would become Japan's most important supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the next few years.
Japan is keen to secure Australian energy resources, especially LNG to compensate for reduced power since the disaster. Besides the damage at Fukushima Daiichi, several other nuclear power plants were shut down after the quake.