Japan's government has declared the 20-km evacuation zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant a “no-entry zone”, banning people from entering. People will only be allowed into the zone under government supervision.
REUTERS - Japan on Thursday said 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.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a press briefing 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, without providing details. “For residents, all I can say is I ask for their understanding so that no legal action will be taken against them.”
TEPCO, struggling to master the world’s most serious nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, has said it may take the rest of the year or longer to bring the plant under control.
It 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.
But water levels were unchanged, the latest in a litany of problems engineers have faced since the crisis began, which has included pumping radioactive water into the sea, to the concern of Japan’s neighbours.
French nuclear plant maker Areva will supply a water treatment plant that uses a process called “co-precipitation” which isolates and removes radioactive elements from water to speed up decontamination of the Fukushima site.
TEPCO hopes to begin the water treatment before the end of May, Areva’s chief executive Anne Lauvergeon said in Tokyo this week.
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”.
Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan, under fire from the opposition and even within his own Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) over his handling of Japan’s worst crisis since World War Two, was visiting Fukushima on Thursday.
More than 13,000 people were killed and tens of thousands lost their homes when the 9.0 earthquake and 15-metre tsunami hit Japan’s northeastern coast. More than 130,000 people were in shelters at the start of this week, according to police figures.
Exports hit, confidence down
Later on Thursday, Kan will meet Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who is visiting Japan. She is expected to assure Kan that despite China’s insatiable appetite for Australia’s resources, it will remain a reliable energy source for Tokyo.
Japan is keen to secure Australian energy resources, especially liquefied natural gas, to compensate for reduced power following the disaster.
As well as the damage sustained by Fukushima Daiichi, many other nuclear power plants were shut down after the quake. The resultant power shortages have exacerbated the disruption to manufacturing supply chains and overall economic activity.