Japan seals off no-go zone around nuclear plant

Japanese police sealed off roads leading into an evacuation zone around a radiation-spewing nuclear power plant Friday to enforce an order meant to keep residents from sneaking back to their homes.

Road blocks with large flashing "Off Limits" signs were set up along major streets leading into the 12-mile (20-kilometer ) zone around the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactors, where nearly 80,000 people were hurriedly evacuated after last month's earthquake and tsunami crippled the plant's cooling systems.

Before the order went into effect at midnight, residents raced back into their deserted hometowns to grab whatever belongings they could cram into their cars.

"This is our last chance, but we aren't going to stay long. We are just getting what we need and getting out," said Kiyoshi Kitajima, an X-ray technician, who dashed to his hospital in Futaba, a town next door to the plant, to collect equipment.

man wearing a protective suite walks in the yard in the deserted town of Futaba, inside the 20-kilometer

By Friday morning, the 250 police sent to the area were manning checkpoints and turning people back. They also planned to erect fences on side streets to stop people from entering, said Fukushima police spokesman Yasunori Okazaki. He said it would take some time to do so.

The order was put in place to limit radiation exposure and theft in the mainly deserted zone, where a growing number of people had been returning to check on the remains of their lives. Under a special nuclear emergency law, people who enter the zone are now subject to fines of up to 100,000 yen ($1,200) or possible detention for up to 30 days. There had previously been no punishment.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano appealed Friday for residents of five other areas affected by relatively high levels of radiation outside the main zone to also prepare for evacuation within a month. The government has previously advised people living in those areas to leave, but has not made evacuation mandatory.

"We are very sorry for causing further trouble. I would like residents in those areas to evacuate to other places," Edano said.

But Norio Kanno, chief of Iitate, a village of 6,200, questioned whether everyone would be able to move out within a month.

"It is really vexing. Just one nuclear accident is destroying everything," Kanno said.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi's power and cooling systems, triggering a spate of fires, explosions and radiation leaks in what has become the world's second-worst nuclear accident ever. Tokyo Electric Power, its operator, says it will take six to nine months, if all goes according to plan, to stabilize the four worst-affected reactors and bring them into a cold shutdown.

While the levels of radioactivity in the evacuated area have been quite low, the government wants to keep people away out of concerns that long-term exposure can be dangerous.

As of Thursday night, about 40 people remained in the area, many of them dairy farmers who were refusing to leave their cattle, and elderly people who cannot move, the government said. Local officials were working to persuade them to leave, rather than punishing them, according to Kenji Kawasaki of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

The no-go order was not issued because of any particular change in plant conditions, which appear to have somewhat stabilized. But it is unclear when or if the government will deem it safe for residents to return to their homes.

Meanwhile, the Finance Ministry said Friday that Prime Minister Naoto Kan approved an extra $50 billion (4 trillion yen) to help finance post-tsunami reconstruction efforts. About 1.2 trillion yen will go to fixing roads and ports.

The twin disasters decimated much of northeastern Japan, leaving more than 27,000 people dead or missing.

The government has said damage could reach $309 billion, making it the world's most expensive natural disaster.

The Japanese cabinet approved a four trillion yen (49 billion dollar) special budget for the reconstruction of areas devastated by last month's earthquake and tsunami, officials said.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan's cabinet plans to submit the budget to parliament on April 28, aiming to pass it by May 2 with the expected support of the opposition, which controls the upper house.

It was the first extra budget approved by the government since the disaster hit northeastern Japan on March 11, leaving more than 27,000 people dead or missing as well as crippling nuclear power reactors.

The budget would cover the costs of restoration work such as clearing massive rubble and building temporary housing for victims of the disaster.

Some 1.20 trillion yen, the biggest portion of the budget, would be spent on public works projects, such as the restoration of roads, ports and farmland.

A student from Tokyo is seen here visiting his family home for the first time since the earthquake and tsunami at Ogatsu town in Ishinomaki city, Miyagi prefecture.

The budget will also cover the repair of damaged schools and social welfare facilities, while financially supporting local governments as well as small businesses in the region.

Japan has said the cost of rebuilding could be as much as 25 trillion yen.

The government will not issue fresh bonds to finance the budget but plans to divert some funds originally aimed at supporting the country's pension programme and child allowances and slash plans to cancel highway tolls.

Kan, under pressure to reduce the nation's huge debt, plans to draw another extra budget as early as June for disaster reconstruction, raising total costs to 10 trillion yen, local media said.

Japan has the industrialised world's biggest debt, at around 200 percent of GDP, after years of pump-priming measures by governments trying in vain to arrest the economy's long decline.

AFP

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