Tokyo, Japan Apr 21: Japan declared a 12-mile (20-kilometre) area evacuated around its radiation-spewing nuclear power plant a no-go zone on Thursday, urging residents to abide by the order for their own safety or possibly face fines or detention.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the order would take effect at midnight and was meant to prevent unrestricted entry into the mostly deserted area, which was ordered evacuated after last month's tsunami and earthquake wrecked the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant's power and cooling systems.
Under Japan's Disaster Countermeasures Basic Law, people who enter the zone would be subject to fines of up to 100,000 yen (1,200 US dollars) and possible detention of up to 30 days.
Up to now, defiance of the evacuation order was not punishable by law.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was visiting the region on Thursday to meet with local officials and evacuees to discuss the plans for strict enforcement of the evacuation zone.
Kan also visited a nuclear crisis management centre in Fukushima, giving a pep talk to workers there.
He has been under fire from the opposition for the government's response to the nuclear crisis.
Almost all the zone's nearly 80,000 residents left when the area was evacuated on March 12, but police had not been able to legally block them from going back.
Police said they had no estimate of the exact number of people who have returned to the zone or who still might be living there.
Edano said authorities would arrange brief visits for residents, allowing one person per household to return by bus for a maximum of two hours to collect necessary belongings. Residents would be required to go through radiation screening, he said.
But visits will not be allowed in a two mile (three kilometre) area closest to the plant, said a spokesman for Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, confirming reports that the zone would be completely off-limits.
Details were still being worked out.
The new ruling was not due to any particular change in conditions inside the plant, which appear to have somewhat stabilised.
Even under the best-case scenario, however, the plant's operator said it would take at least six months to bring its reactors safely into a cold shutdown. AP