|The Japanese government is aiming to establish a temporary fund to help manage reconstruction expenses [EPA]
Authorities in Japan are considering restricting access to the evacuation zone around Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex in a bid to limit the radiation exposure of residents who may wish to return to their homes.
Yukio Edano, the country's chief cabinet secretary, said on Wednesday that the government was considering setting up "caution zones" in order to limit entry to the affected areas, but it remains unclear when such a ban may be imposed.
Naoto Kan, the Japanese prime minister, will meet with local officials and evacuees during a visit to the affected region on Thursday to discuss the proposed measure.
Between 70,000 and 80,000 people were living in the 10 towns and villages within 20 kilometres of the Fukushima power plant, which has been leaking radiation since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami crippled its power and cooling systems.
Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the plant's operator, has now begun pumping highly radioactive water from the basement of one of the turbine buildings into a makeshift storage area, in what is being seen as a crucial step towards enabling repair work on the cooling systems.
Removal of the 25,000 metric tons of contaminated water that has collected in the basement of the turbine building for Unit 2 is expected to take at least 20 days, nuclear safety officials say. In total, 70,000 tons of contaminated water will need to be disposed of from across the plant and trenches around it in a process that could take months.
Nevertheless, a senior official at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said that after the disposal, the total increase in radiation released will be "small" compared to current levels.
"Taking into account all the measures that are foreseen, the new amount of release will be decreasing and decreasing, and the total amount would not be much different from what it is today," said Dennis Flory, the deputy director-general of the IAEA, during a regular news briefing in Vienna.
Restricted access being considered
Meanwhile, the Japanese government continues to consider ways to limit access to the immediate vicinity of the plant, while also heeding demands from residents who wish to return to collect their belongings.
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Many say they fled with practically nothing when the evacuation orders first went out.
"We are considering ways for them to realise a short visit back to their homes," said Noriyuki Shikata, the deputy chief cabinet secretary for the prime minister's office.
"Both the issue of ... strong enforcement of the area and a realisation of temporarily going back home is something we have to closely coordinate with local municipalities," he said, noting that for now there is no penalty for entering the area.
"There are also issues surrounding non-residents who are entering the area. There are people who may steal things. There are various issues involved," he said.
On Wednesday, TEPCO announced that it had begun distributing applications for compensation to residents who were forced to evacuate from their homes due to the overheating nuclear plant. The company is offering about $12,000 as an interim compensation payment.
IAEA experts are currently discussing ways to help Japan meet a nine-month target for safely decommissioning the Fukushima plant.
TEPCO's current blueprint calls for the plant to be in a 'cold shutdown' state by that point, but government officials have acknowledged that setbacks could mean that target is missed.
Flory, the IAEA deputy director-general, termed the setting of the timetable "very positive", but cautioned that whether or not it will be kept to "will be shown by the facts".
TEPCO is continuing to spray water into the reactors and their spent fuel storage pools in order to prevent them from overheating and releasing even more radiation.
The company plans to use technology developed by a French nuclear engineering firm to reduce radioactivity and remove salt from the contaminated water inside the plant so that it may be reused to cool the reactors, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, an official at Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
The process would take several months, he said.
The goverment has been criticised in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami for not handling the nuclear crisis in a transparent manner, but on Wednesday Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, implied that it was TEPCO who should have been better prepared for the disaster.
"Aside from the question of whether the accident could have been predicted, there was not sufficient preparation based on an anticipation, and there is no mistake about that,'' he said. "We urge all nuclear operators to immediately take any possible precaution based on the lesson from the Fukushima nuclear accident, and not wait until details of the accident are examined.''
Meanwhile, TEPCO also announced on Wednesday that one of its thermal power units had been restarted. The 1,000MW No.6 oil thermal unit at the Kashima power plant is the last to reopen at the facility after the plant shut down on March 11.