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Japan orders compensation for nuclear plant evacuees

Japan's government ordered the operator of a tsunami-damaged nuclear plant today to pay £7,330 to each household forced to evacuate because of leaking radiation, but some of the displaced criticised the handout as too little.

Tens of thousands of residents unable to return to their homes near the nuclear plant are bereft of their livelihoods and possessions, unsure of when, if ever, they will be able to return home. Some have travelled hundreds of miles to Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s headquarters in Tokyo to press their demands for compensation.

TEPCO will start paying compensation on 28 April, with families forced to evacuate getting 1 million yen (about £7,330) and individuals getting 750,000 yen, Trade Ministry spokesman Hiroaki Wada said.

"There are around 150 evacuation centers alone. It will take some time until everyone gets money. But we want the company to quickly do this to support people's lives," Trade Minister Banri Kaieda said at a news conference.

The arrangement is a provisional one, with more compensation expected, Wada said. Roughly 48,000 households living within about 19 miles of the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant would be eligible for the payments.

"I'm not satisfied," said Kazuko Suzuki, a 49-year-old single mother of two teenagers from the town of Futuba, adjacent to the plant. She has lived at a shelter at a high school north of Tokyo for the last month.

Her family has had to buy clothes, food, shampoo and other basics because they fled the area on government orders without taking time to pack. She has lost her job as a welfare worker, and a job prospect for her 18-year-old fell through because of the effects of the disaster.

"We've had to spend money on so many extra things and we don't know how long this could go on," she said.

Akemi Osumi, a 48-year-old mother of three also from Futuba, said the money was a "small step" but that it didn't fairly compensate larger families. Her family is living at the same shelter but also must rent an apartment for her eldest son to go to a vocational school.

"One million yen doesn't go very far," she said. "I'm not convinced at just 1 million yen per family. If it was dependent on the size of the family I'd understand, but it's not."

TEPCO's president, Masataka Shimizu, formally announced the plan, saying he wanted the payments to be made "fairly and quickly."

TEPCO expects to pay 50 billion yen in government-ordered compensation. But Shimizu said 2 trillion yen was needed to resolve the continuing problems with the plant and to restart conventional power stations to make up for power shortages.

The company is still struggling to stabilise the nuclear plant, which saw its cooling systems fail after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake on 11 March triggered a massive tsunami that wrecked emergency backup systems as well as much of the plant's regular equipment.

Radiation leaks from the crisis have contaminated crops and left fishermen in the region unable to sell their catches, a huge blow to an area heavily dependent on fishing and farming.

The governor of Fukushima, Yuhei Sato, has vigorously criticized both TEPCO and the government for their handling of the disaster, demanding faster action.

"This is just a beginning. The accident has not ended. We will continue to ask the government and TEPCO to fully compensate evacuees."

Nearly 140,000 people are still living in shelters after losing their homes or being advised to evacuate because of concerns about radiation.

Seeking to console evacuees, Japan's emperor visited the country's disaster zone for the first time yesterday.

In Asahi, where 13 people were killed and some 3,000 homes damaged, Emperor Akihito, 77, and Empress Michiko got their first look at the devastation, somberly gazing at a plot of land where a home once stood and also commiserating with evacuees at two shelters.

The royal couple kneeled on mats to speak quietly with the survivors, who bowed in gratitude and wiped away tears. One evacuee with Down syndrome, who has trouble speaking, wrote "I will keep striving" in a small notebook that he showed to the emperor and empress. Asahi is about 55 miles east of Tokyo.

Even as the month-old emergency dragged on, radiation levels dropped enough for police sealed in white protective suits, goggles and blue gloves to begin searching for bodies amid the muddy debris inside a six-mile radius around the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant that had been off-limits.

Authorities believe up to 1,000 bodies are lodged in the debris. A police spokesman, who gave only the surname Sato, said searchers were working today to recover three of the 10 bodies they located on Thursday that were trapped in cars or debris.

Overall, the bodies of only about 13,500 of the more than 26,000 people believed killed in the March 11 disaster have been recovered. Many of the remaining victims are believed to have been washed out to sea.