Japan PM To Visit Nuke Zone

Japan’s prime minister is travelling to the country’s nuclear disaster zone as workers continue to brave radiation from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant to battle the world’s worst atomic crisis since Chernobyl.

Naoto Kan is due to visit a sports camp that has been turned into a base for military, firefighters and engineers working inside an evacuation zone in an effort to cool the six-reactor complex and contain contamination before Japan seeks a permanent solution.

Mr Kan has warned of a “long-term battle” at Fukushima, where the nuclear crisis entering its fourth week has compounded national anguish after an earthquake and tsunami that left 28,000 people dead or missing.

“We are focusing on stabilising the conditions there using every bit of expertise available,” he said before leaving.

“I am convinced we will be able to achieve it. I do not know for now how long this will take.”

The 64-year-old’s popularity was already low before the March 11 disaster. Critics have accused him both of poor leadership during the crisis and of hampering emergency efforts by flying over Fukushima Daiichi the day after the quake.

As well as seeing the operation first hand, Mr Kan aimed to give a morale boost to workers operating in frightful conditions as they enter dark and mangled corners of the complex to try to restart pumps needed to stop fuel rods overheating.

He was also to visit the beach town of Rikuzentakata, flattened into a wasteland of mud and debris by the wave that crashed into the north-east Pacific coast on March 11.

Mr Kan is leading Japan during its toughest moment since World War II.

As well as the nuclear crisis, the Asian nation has 172,400 people in temporary shelters and a damage bill that may top $300 billion – the world’s biggest from a natural disaster.

But the prime minister is not the only one under pressure.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), Asia’s largest power company, has seen its shares lose 80 per cent – $32 billion in market value – since the disaster.

With its president Masataka Shimizu in hospital, an enormous compensation bill looming and mounting criticism of both its handling of the crisis and prior safety preparations, TEPCO may need state help, according to media reports.

Mr Kan said he wanted TEPCO to continue to “work hard as a private company”, but some sort of injection of public funds looks inevitable.

Radiation

Radiation 4,000 times the legal limit has been detected in seawater near the plant as contaminated water used to cool down reactor rods leaks into the ocean.

In its attempt to bring the plant under control, TEPCO is looking for “jumpers” – workers who, for payment of up to $5,000 a shift, will rush into highly radioactive areas to do a quick task before racing out as quickly as possible.

“My company offered me 200,000 yen ($2,500) per day,” one subcontractor, unidentified but in his 30s, told Japan’s Weekly Post magazine.

“Ordinarily I’d consider that a dream job, but my wife was in tears and stopped me, so I declined.”

High levels of radiation outside a 20km exclusion zone has put pressure on Japan to widen the restricted area.

Food and milk shipments from the region have been stopped, devastating the livelihoods of farmers and fishermen. Various countries have banned food imports from the area.

But life in Tokyo, Japan’s capital of 13 million people, was slowly returning to normal after the early days of the disaster when train services were patchy, workers stayed home and groceries like bread, milk, toilet paper and diapers were rare.

Meanwhile, radiation levels recorded at a village outside the evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant are improving daily and now appear to be back below safe levels, the UN atomic watchdog said.

Two days ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency said safe limits had been exceeded at Iitate village, 40km north-west of Fukushima, well outside the government-imposed 20 kilometre exclusion zone and the 30-kilometre “stay indoors” zone.

But by Friday, more samples had been taken and they showed that levels were back below IAEA operational criteria for evacuation.

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