Japan PM to visit nuclear disaster zone

By Chizu Nomiyama and Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s prime minister was headed on Saturday to the disaster zone where workers are braving radiation from a crippled nuclear plant to battle the world’s worst atomic crisis since Chernobyl.

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

The base camp itself is located inside the 20-km (12-mile) radius evacuation area.

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 stabilizing 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 Kan’s popularity was already low before the 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 on Saturday, Kan aimed to give a morale boost to workers operating in appalling 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 northeast Pacific coast on March 11.

Kan is leading Japan during its toughest moment since World War Two. As well as the nuclear crisis, the Asian nation has more than 166,200 people in temporary shelters and a damage bill that may top $300 billion — the world’s biggest from a natural disaster.

Japan’s 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 percent — $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.

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

Standard & Poor’s on Friday cut its long-term rating on TEPCO by three notches to “BBB+,” in its second downgrade on the electric utility in as many weeks.

“We expect TEPCO’s operating performance to remain weak, and we believe it will take a prolonged period of time for it to recover,” the credit ratings agency said in a statement.

Corporate woes were, however, far from the mind of many Japanese still trying to reconstruct their shattered lives after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami snatched away loved ones and reduced homes to piles of mud and junk.

More than 70,000 people have been evacuated from the 20 km ring round Fukushima Daiichi and another 136,000 in a 10-km (6-mile) zone have been encouraged to leave or to stay indoors.

It could take years, possibly decades, to make safe the area around the plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.

The recovery of about 1,000 bodies in the zone around the plant has been delayed by fears they are contaminated, causing further anguish in a Buddhist culture where correct treatment of the dead, usually with a wake and cremation, is paramount.

CHINESE PANDAS, RESCUED DOG

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 20 km (12 mile) exclusion zone have 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.

With global passions high over atomic power, an Italian anarchist group claimed responsibility for a parcel bomb that injured two employees of the Swiss nuclear lobby group.

On a happier note for Japanese, a pair of pandas from China made their first public appearance at a Tokyo zoo after their debut was postponed due to the March 11 disaster.

And amid the litany of depressing tales from the disaster zone, there was at least some cheer from the remarkable tale of a dog that survived after floating on a house for three weeks.

A coastguard rescue team spotted the resilient canine trotting on the roof and lowered one of the team from a helicopter to transport the animal to safety by boat.

(Additional reporting by Terril Jones in Tokyo; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Japan PM to visit nuclear disaster zone