Japan may ban entry to evacuation zone around crippled N-plant

Tokyo/Fukushima: Japan may for the first time designate as "off-limits" the 20-km evacuation zone around the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant, amid concerns over radiation risks to residents who have been returning temporarily to collect their belongings.

Premier Naoto Kan, who is to visit Fukushima prefecture where the crippled plant is located as early as tomorrow, is expected to announce that his government would soon impose an order to prohibit people from entering the exclusion zone around the facility, government sources were quoted as saying by Kyodo news agency on Wednesday.

The government is considering designating the 20-km area around the plant, which has already been covered by an evacuation directive after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, as off-limits within a week, the sources said.

The measure is aimed at enhancing government control of the area, where evacuees have been temporarily returning home on their own to collect belongings despite fears of radiation, which continues to leak from the crisis-hit Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Also, workers of the plant`s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), engaged in efforts to stabilise the crisis-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, are at risk of depression or death from overwork, a doctor who recently saw them was quoted as saying.

TEPCO said the level of highly radioactive water filling up one of the underground tunnels at the site has dropped by one centimetre, a day after the critical work to pump out the liquid was launched as part of efforts to restore key cooling functions of its troubled reactors

That amounts to a reduction of 210 tonnes of the water in the tunnel, pumped out at a rate of 10 tonnes per hour, national broadcaster NHK said.

TEPCO is aiming to remove a total of 25,000 tonnes of the contaminated water out of the No.2 reactor turbine building basement and connecting tunnel to the nearby processing facility.

The utility said it would monitor the current pumping rate for 10 days or more and then add more pumps, to move 10,000 tonnes of the radiated water by mid-May.

TEPCO said the contaminated water levels are also rising in the basements of reactors No.5 and 6, and in tunnels connected to reactors No.3 and 4.

It said it would transfer about 100 tonnes of contaminated water from the No.5 and No.6 reactors to condensers, to assess how much water is accumulating. It said groundwater may have been seeping into the reactors` turbine buildings.

TEPCO estimated that a total of 67,500 tonnes of radioactive water has accumulated at the nuclear plant, which is hampering efforts to restore cooling systems.

French nuclear reactor maker Areva said it has agreed to join hands with TEPCO to build a facility to decontaminate radioactive water at the compound of the Fukushima plant.

Its CEO Anne Lauvergeon said in Tokyo yesterday said it is most important to decontaminate the water at the plant, and that her company will try to do this in every possible way, NHK said.

Japan`s Health Ministry is also set to form a panel of experts to discuss ways to safeguard tap water from radioactive contamination.

The move came after radioactive iodine at levels higher than national limits was detected temporarily in tap water in parts of Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures.

The ministry yesterday held a meeting of advisers, including environment experts and water utility industry representatives, to discuss counter-measures.

The panel is to start discussions next week and come up with a report on specific measures by around June.

Meanwhile, the National Police Agency said that the total number of dead and missing in the March 11 twin disaster was 27,661.

The agency said 14,001 people are confirmed dead, including those killed in aftershocks on April 7 and 11. About 84 per cent of the dead have been identified.

It said 13,660 people are listed as missing, but the number does not include those from Sendai City in Miyagi Prefecture, as authorities are currently checking for overlapping reports.

More than 136,000 people are still living at evacuation centers in 18 prefectures, it said.