|Some evacuees were allowed to pick up belonging from their homes on Tuesday, wearing protective suits [Reuters]
Japan has approved a rescue plan to help nuclear plant owner TEPCO bear the cost of the Fukushima disaster, and started the shutdown of another atomic plant to prevent a similar calamity.
The company faces compensation payments worth tens of billions of dollars after more than 80,000 people were forced from homes, farms and businesses in a 20km zone around the plant that was hit by a tsunami two months ago.
To help TEPCO meet its obligations, the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Friday decided on a financial aid plan paid for mostly with new government bonds.
The government scheme is designed to save the biggest of Japan's 10 utilities from bankruptcy and prevent turmoil on financial markets.
The plan is subject to parliamentary approval, which is not certain as some legislators have called for stronger measures to ensure the public does not foot the cost, amid criticism the scheme protects shareholders and bondholders.
The government in a statement cited its "social responsibility in having promoted nuclear power" and said it would support TEPCO "under the principle of minimising the burden on the people".
TEPCO and the government have yet to release estimates for the payout bill, but analysts say it could range from four trillion yen ($50 billion) to 10 trillion yen depending on how long the nuclear crisis lasts.
The Fukushima plant has leaked radiation into the air, ground and sea after the massive tsunami, triggered by an earthquake, struck Japan on March 12.
Meanwhile, to allay the risk of a second quake-triggered nuclear disaster, another power company, Chubu Electric, on Friday morning started to shut down another coastal nuclear plant, as requested by the Kan government.
Seismologists have long warned that a major quake is overdue in the Tokai region 200km southwest of Tokyo where the Hamaoka plant is located.
Kan said the ageing Hamaoka plant should stay closed while a higher sea wall is built and other measures are taken to guard it against a major tsunami.
Local media said the suspension would last about two years.
Officials revealed on Thursday that one of the Fukushima reactors had been damaged more severely than originally thought.
Data showed that the water level in the core of Unit 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is much lower than previously thought, leaving a portion of the fuel rods fully exposed.
However, temperatures in the unit were still far below dangerous levels because TEPCO continues to inject new water to keep the rods cool.
Officials acknowledged that the level of damage could complicate plans detailed in April to bring the plant to a cold shutdown within nine months.
The new findings became available after workers fixed a water metre on Tuesday after entering the building for the first time since a March 12 hydrogen explosion.