Evac area to soon be declared ‘off-limits’

Kyodo News

The 20-km evacuation zone around the crisis-hit Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant will soon be turned into a legally binding off-limits zone, senior officials said Sunday.

The step is aimed at increasing government control over the area. Desperate residents have been braving radiation fears for quick return trips to pick up essential belongings. Officials suggested Sunday that they will now be able to force anyone out of the evacuation zone who refuses to leave.

The Fukushima Prefectural Government has been urging Tokyo to impose such a zone and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Sunday that final arrangements are being made to take the step.

Under the law on nuclear disaster countermeasures, the government can order heads of cities, towns and villages to designate legally binding “caution areas” where people other than those engaged in disaster relief are prohibited from entering and can ordered to leave under threat of punishment.

After the March 11 earthquake and tsunami crippled the power station 220 km northeast of Tokyo and triggered Japan’s worst nuclear crisis, the government directed people within 20 km of the plant to evacuate and those between 20 and 30 km away to stay indoors or voluntarily leave. The directive, however, was not legally binding.

In a separate development, a ban imposed March 23 on shipments of raw milk from Ibaraki Prefecture was lifted after three consecutive weeks of tests showed it is no longer contaminated with radioactive materials above the designated limit for consumption.

According to the latest government data available, radiation readings have generally fallen in northeastern and eastern parts of the country, with Gunma Prefecture returning to levels seen before the crisis. But the Fukushima government said Sunday it will measure radiation levels at more locations next week outside the 20-km zone to comply with residents’ demands.

“We recognize that it’s necessary to talk with municipalities and set the area as a caution zone as a step before” allowing affected residents to temporarily return home, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama said earlier in the day on Fuji TV.

Fukuyama said the government aims to allow residents to visit their homes “for an hour or two” soon and that necessary measures, such as screening and removal of radioactive substances, will be taken.

As for the 20- to 30-km band where residents have been told to stay indoors, Fukuyama said the government is considering expanding the zone because “some areas outside of the 30-km zone have seen the cumulative amount of radiation rise, depending on the wind.”