THE evacuation zone around the crippled nuclear plant in Fukushima was extended yesterday after a huge aftershock shook a wide swathe of eastern Japan, killing two people.
The aftershock struck shortly after Japan marked one month since the earthquake and tsunami triggered the nuclear disaster on March 11. Power was cut off to 220,000 households as a result.
The cordon around the plant has been expanded in an effort to avoid exposing more residents to high levels of accumulated radiation, as the struggle to contain the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl entered its second month.
Last night the operator of the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex said it had stopped the discharge of low-level radioactive water into the sea that had drawn complaints from neighbouring China and South Korea.
Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), said that 10,400 tonnes of low-level radioactive water, left by the tsunami, had been pumped back into the sea in order to free up storage capacity for highly contaminated water from the reactors.
The epicentre of yesterday's magnitude 6.6 tremor, which was followed by more than 25 aftershocks, was 90 miles east of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex.
The government had earlier announced that because of accumulated radiation contamination, it would encourage people to leave certain areas beyond the 20km exclusion zone around the plant. Thousands of people could be affected by the move.
Children, pregnant women, and hospital patients should stay out of some areas 30km from the nuclear complex, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters.
"These new evacuation plans are meant to ensure safety against risks of living there for half a year or one year," he said. There was no need to evacuate immediately, he added.
The move comes amid international concern over radiation spreading from the six damaged reactors at Fukushima, which engineers are still struggling to bring under control after they were wrecked by the 15-metre tsunami.
TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu visited the area yesterday for the first time since the disaster. He had vanished from public view apart from a brief apology shortly after the crisis began and has spent some of the time since in hospital.
"I would like to deeply apologise again for causing physical and psychological hardships to people of Fukushima prefecture," Shimizu said.