Japan announces $49 bln quake budget

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Japan on Friday announced a $49 billion special budget for areas devastated by last month's quake and tsunami and said it would extend an evacuation zone around a nuclear plant crippled by the disaster.

It was the first reconstruction budget approved by Prime Minister Naoto Kan's cabinet since the tragedy in northeast Japan on March 11 that wiped entire towns off the map and left more than 27,000 people dead or missing.

The four trillion yen ($49 billion) budget would cover restoration work such as clearing massive amounts of rubble and building temporary housing for the thousands of people who lost their homes in the disaster.

The government said it was also planning to widen the evacuation zone around the Fukushima atomic plant, which has been leaking radiation since it was hammered by the magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami in the country's worst post-war disaster.

The evacuation zone will be extended to areas beyond the 20-kilometer (12-mile) no-go zone where radiation levels have been rising.

"There are some areas... where radiation materials from the plant are accumulating and radiation levels are getting higher," said the top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.

"We are sorry for people in the zone, but considering the impact on their health, we want to ask them to evacuate," said Edano, adding the measure would take effect in about a month.

Embattled plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has said it aims to cool reactors and start reducing radiation from the facility within three months and expects to achieve cold shutdown within six to nine months.

Families forced to flee their homes angrily shouted at the TEPCO head Masataka Shimizu Friday as he apologised for the disaster.

"When can we go home?" one emotional evacuee demanded as Shimizu bowed deeply in apology during a visit to dozens of people living in an evacuation centre shown on the TV Asahi network.

More than 85,000 people have moved to shelters from areas around the plant, including from a wider 30-kilometre evacuation zone, where people were first told to stay indoors and later urged to leave.

The 20-kilometre no-go zone around the plant came into effect Friday, with police erecting checkpoints to prevent people returning to their homes within the high-radiation area.

Television pictures showed several cars being turned away.

The ban can be enforced with detentions or 100,000 yen ($1,200) fines but one member from each household will be allowed to make a short authorized and monitored trip into the zone to collect personal belongings.

Japan has said the cost of rebuilding could be as much as 25 trillion yen while the area close to the Fukushima plant may be uninhabitable for years as a result of the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

Kan's cabinet plans to submit the supplementary budget for devastated areas to parliament on April 28, aiming to pass it by May 2 with the expected support of the conservative opposition, which controls the upper house.

About 1.2 trillion yen, the biggest portion, would be spent on public works projects such as the restoration of roads, ports and farmland.

The government will not issue fresh bonds but plans to divert some funds originally aimed at supporting the pension program and child allowances and slash plans to cancel highway tolls.

Kan, under pressure to reduce the nation's huge debt, plans another extra budget as early as June for disaster reconstruction, raising total costs to 10 trillion yen, according to local media.

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