Thursday’s decision to declare the area around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant a no-go zone has compounded the difficulties facing tens of thousands of Japanese forced to leave their homes after the March 11 tsunami, as well as a beleaguered Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
Despite signs of progress in bringing the plant’s damaged reactors under control, the government banned residents from entering the 20-kilometer (12 miles) evacuation zone due to concerns about high levels of accumulated radiation.
After midnight on Thursday local time, anyone found entering the area without permission could be fined up to 100,000 yen ($1,220) or detained for a maximum of 30 days. Previously, police had been unable to enforce the evacuation order for the zone, once home to about 80,000 people.
Within hours of the announcement, a steady flow of evacuees rushed back to the homes some have not seen for almost six weeks to collect clothes and valuables before the order went into effect.
None knows when, if ever, they will be able to return permanently. The nuclear plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), says it will take up to nine months to bring down radiation levels and stabilize the plant.
But the firm and the government have dodged the question of when evacuees might be able to return.
The government’s chief spokesman, Yukio Edano, said one member from each household would be permitted to spend up to two hours inside the area to collect belongings, adding that they would be able to make multiple visits.
The evacuees will be bused into the area under police escort over the next one to two months. They will be required to wear protective suits and to undergo screening for radiation on their way out.
Mr. Edano said anyone found trying to break the order would be punished. “All I can do is ask for the residents’ understanding so that no legal action will be taken against them,” he said.
The authorities’ chief concern is the accumulation of radioactivity in areas near the plant, where livestock have been left to die and the contaminated bodies of an estimated 1,000 people remain uncollected.
Last week, the government added five locations outside the evacuation zone to the list of areas that could pose a long-term threat to health.
“The plant is not stable," Edano said. "We have been asking residents not to enter the area as there is a huge risk to their safety."
Prime minister under fire
Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan has come under fire for his handling of the crisis, with almost 70 percent of people in a recent poll by the Nikkei business paper calling on him to make way for a new leader.
On Thursday, Mr. Kan was harangued during a visit to an evacuation center in Fukushima prefecture.“Are you leaving?” one man shouted as Kan and his aides left the building. Kan turned to apologize, but was criticized again by a woman, who said: “You should bring cabinet ministers here and let them try living here. How do you think we feel?”
A clearly chastened Kan conceded he had underestimated the depth of feeling among nuclear evacuees. “I need to put myself in their shoes and think more about their needs,” he said.
Meanwhile at the Fukushima plant...
Demands from residents to bring the Fukushima plant under control are unlikely to be met soon, however. Workers have only just started storing radioactive water that has accumulated inside reactor turbine buildings.
The build-up of water has prevented them from gauging the extent of damage to fuel rods and repairing internal cooling systems knocked out by the quake and tsunami.
At the start of the month, Tepco was forced to pump contaminated water into the sea, angering neighboring South Korea and China. The amount of radiation included in the pumped water was 20,000 times that permitted outdoors annually by Japan’s nuclear safety agency, Kyodo News reported.
Days after he thanked the international community for their support during the biggest crisis in Japan’s postwar history, Kan on Thursday voiced “extreme regret” for the nuclear crisis in a letter published in Chinese newspapers.