WRAPUP 2-Japan PM to visit nuclear disaster zone

* Under-pressure leader to encourage workers, victims

* Nuclear crisis enters fourth week, no quick solution

* Plant operator TEPCO’s shares plunge

* S&P cuts TEPCO long-term rating by three notches

* Victims still struggle, but dog rescue brings some cheer

(Adds S&P rating action, location of PM Kan destination)

By Chizu Nomiyama and Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO, April 2 (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 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 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)

WRAPUP 2-Japan PM to visit nuclear disaster zone