Evacuees face long wait before they can return to their homes

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The Independent Online

Tens of thousands of people ordered to leave their homes because of radiation seeping from Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant damaged in the 11 March earthquake and tsunami were warned yesterday that it would be a long time before they could return.

However Naoto Kan, the Prime Minister, sought to reassure the public that they would bring the plant under control and that the nation would rebound from one of the world's worst nuclear crises.

"I am prepared for a long-term battle over the Fukushima nuclear plant, and to win this battle," he said in a televised press conference, three weeks after the disasters ravaged the north-eastern coast.

"We cannot say that the plant has been sufficiently stabilised. But we are preparing for all kinds of situations and I am convinced that the plant can be stabilised," he added.

His comments came a day after the plant's much-criticised operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, said they had found levels of radioactive contamination in soil underneath one of the reactors at 10,000 times the legal limit. But Japan's nuclear safety agency has ordered a review, saying the figure was suspiciously high. The company has been forced before to retract other inaccurate readings in the past weeks.

The confusion and lack of detail have angered and worried many Japanese, who are unsure if tap water, milk and meat are safe to consume or if people living outside the plant's exclusion zone should leave. So far at least 70,000 people living within a 20-kilometre radius of the Fukushima plant have been ordered to evacuate.

The United Nation's nuclear agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has advised the government to consider expanding the no-go zone after finding high levels of radiation in a village 40 kilometres from the plant. Japan's nuclear safety agency has said that radioactive iodine in the sea near the plant is more than 4,000 times above the safe limit.

Yukio Edano, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, said those in the evacuation zone should not expect to return home soon. "Unfortunately this is likely to be long," he said. "I think we're in a situation where it's not the time to release the evacuation order in a few days or a few weeks."

Nuclear experts have been more pessimistic, saying it could take decades to render the area around the plant habitable again.