Authorities may for the first time ban access to the evacuation zone around Japan’s crippled nuclear plant today amid concerns over radiation risks to residents who may be returning to check on their homes.
About 70,000-80,000 people were living in the 10 towns and villages within 12 miles of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, which has been leaking radiation after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami wrecked its power and cooling systems.
Virtually all left after being advised to do so, but some occasionally have returned, defying warnings from police who have set up roadblocks on only a few major roads in the area.
“We are considering setting up ’caution areas’ as an option for effectively limiting entry” to the zone, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.
Noriyuki Shikata, one of Edano’s deputies, said the government was still considering details of how to control access to the immediate vicinity of the nuclear plant while also responding to demands from residents to check their homes and collect belongings.
Now that the situation at the plant appears to have stabilised, both residents and the authorities are considering how to best weather a protracted evacuation. Only a few warning signs, mainly about road conditions, have been erected in the area so far.
“There are a number of people who may be entering the area. Under the current regime, we are not in a position to legally enforce – there’s no penalty for entering into the area. There is a realisation of a need to have a stronger enforcement of the area,” Shikata said.
At present, police keep track of people entering the evacuation zone by noting down their licence plate numbers.
“Both the issue of ... strong enforcement of the area and a realisation of temporarily going back home is something we have to closely co-ordinate with local municipalities,” Shikata 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.
It was unclear when the restrictions on entry into the area near the nuclear plant might be imposed.
In a step toward restoring the crippled nuclear plant’s cooling systems, Tokyo Electric Power Co, the nuclear plant’s operator, is pumping highly radioactive water from the basement of one of its turbine buildings to a makeshift storage area.
Removal of the first 2.6 million gallons of 6.6 million gallons of contaminated water that has collected just in the basement of the turbine building at Unit 2 of the plant began yesterday and is expected to take at least 20 days, nuclear safety officials said. Fully ridding the plant of 18.5 million gallons of contaminated water in its turbine buildings and nearby trenches could take months.
Still, a senior official at the UN nuclear agency suggested the worst of the radiation leaks may be over.
The total amount of radiation released is expected to be only a “small increase from what it is today” if “things go as foreseen,” said Dennis Flory, a deputy director general at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
In the meantime, TEPCO is continuing to spray water into the reactors and their spent fuel storage pools to help prevent them from overheating and releasing still more radiation.
TEPCO said it has begun distributing applications for compensation to residents forced to evacuate from their homes around the plant. The company is offering about $12,000 (€8,315) per household as interim compensation.