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Japan declares N-plant no-go zone

Japan has declared a 12-mile area evacuated around its radiation-spewing nuclear power plant a no-go zone, 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 was meant to prevent unrestricted entry into the mostly deserted area, which was evacuated after last month's tsunami and earthquake wrecked the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant's power and cooling systems.

Under a special nuclear emergency law, people who enter the zone will now be subject to fines of up to 100,000 yen (£740) and possible detention of up to 30 days. Up to now, defiance of the evacuation order was not punishable by law.

"We beg the understanding of residents. We really want residents not to enter the areas," Mr Edano said. "Unfortunately, there are still some people in the areas."

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 says it will take at least six months to bring its reactors safely into a cold shutdown.

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.

Officials said the order was meant to limit exposure to radiation leaking from the plant, and to control entry to prevent theft.

Mr 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 area closest to the plant, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, confirming reports that this zone would be completely off-limits.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan was visiting the region on Thursday to meet local officials and evacuees to discuss the plans for strict enforcement of the evacuation zone.

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