Kan visits tsunami-devastated northeast,pledges all assistance

Tokyo/Fukushima: Surveying the tsunami- ravaged northeast for the third time since the disaster struck a month ago, Japanese Premier Naoto Kan on Sunday pledged all assistance to rebuild the region, where the radiation-leaking Fukushima nuclear plant is yet to be stabilised.

Kan visited a fishing area in Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture, the worst-hit in the March 11 magnitude-9 quake and tsunami that left nearly 30,000 people dead or unaccounted for in Japan`s northeast

He promised the locals that the government would do all it can to help them rebuild their lives and resume fishing.

Amid concerns raised by countries like South Korea over the release of low-level radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean by workers at the Fukushima plant, Kan acknowledged Japan should have given firmer explanations to the neighbours.

Kan also visited a Self-Defense Forces (SDF) headquarters in Sendai, where the SDF and US troops in Japan have set up a joint office for relief work, and thanked American military for its cooperation.

At a devastated fishing port in the city, Kan told members of the local fisheries industry that the government would select ports that should be preferentially reconstructed under a rehabilitation programme.

The Prime Minister told Governor Yoshihiro Murai of Miyagi prefecture that the central government would build 70,000 temporary houses as quickly as possible.

Kan, who arrived in the prefecture on board an SDF aircraft, also held talks with Ishinomaki city`s Mayor Hiroshi Kameyama. Ishinomaki is a coastal city of 163,000 people.

Governor Murai sought sufficient assistance for people affected by the quake and tsunami, while Mayor Kameyama requested that temporary housing be built as quickly as possible for those who have lost their homes.

Kan said the government has set an immediate goal of building 70,000 temporary houses and will speed up construction as much as possible.

He said the government would convene a panel of experts this week to study a blueprint for reconstruction.

Kan later went up a hill to survey areas that sustained extensive damage from tsunami, and visited evacuees at a shelter, national broadcaster NHK reported.

Meanwhile, workers at the troubled Fukushima plant are expected to soon start pumping out highly radioactive water filling an underground trench to a nearby storage place inside the No.2 reactor turbine building.

Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said that removal of the highly contaminated water from the trench must be done "in haste," as its level is edging up, apparently because of steps taken to prevent it from leaking into the Pacific Ocean, Kyodo news agency reported.

Toxic water has been found in the basements of the Nos. 1 to No.3 reactor turbine buildings, as well as in nearby trenches connected to them.

Transferring the water, totaling some 60,000 tonnes, to nearby tanks and other storage places is seen as vital to move ahead with the work to restore the key cooling functions at the reactors.

"As contaminated water with high concentration (of radioactive substances) would be moved, we would like to confirm the safety of the process," Nishiyama was quoted as saying.

Workers are also trying to open up a facility for nuclear waste disposal in the plant by continuing to dump relatively less contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. A total of 8,900 tonnes of such water has been released so far.

The plant`s operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is also expected to fly a small unmanned helicopter to survey the plant, depending on the weather, Nishiyama said.

Residents are temporarily returning to the government-designated evacuation zone near the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant to collect their belongings, despite the radiation risk.

An elderly couple living within the zone were quoted as saying by Kyodo that they noticed increased vehicular movements since the start of April and lights turned on at some homes in the neighbourhood.

Due to radiation fears after the quake and tsunami smashed the nuclear plant, the Japanese government had asked people within a 20 km-radius of the facility to evacuate and those in the 20-30 km ring to stay indoors or "voluntarily leave" the area.

According to the National Police Agency, 12,985 people have been confirmed dead and 14,809 listed as missing following the March 11 twin disaster, bringing the total to 27,794. The figure includes deaths reported after a major aftershock on Thursday night.

SDF and US military troops today conducted a massive search operation for those who are still missing after the disaster.

The search operation covered coastal and inland areas from Iwate to Fukushima prefectures, but not the 30-km zone surrounding the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.

The joint mission involved 22,000 personnel from both the countries. About 50 vessels and 90 aircraft were also being used.

Meanwhile, voting kicked off for local elections across Japan today after a subdued campaign in the wake of the worst crisis in Japan`s postwar history, triggered by the mega quake and tsunami.

The results would, however, be crucial in the elections, including the much-publicised Tokyo gubernatorial race, over issues ranging from how to revitalise local economies to the devolution of power.