Japan should widen evacuation zone, says UN nuclear watchdog

A U.S. military forklift carries a destroyed vehicle at a loading bay platform at Sendai Airport in Miyagi prefecture, Japan, on March 29, 2011.</p>

A U.S. military forklift carries a destroyed vehicle at a loading bay platform at Sendai Airport in Miyagi prefecture, Japan, on March 29, 2011.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog told Japan it should consider expanding its evacuation zone around its crippled nuclear power plant as the country's respected emperor and empress visited evacuees.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it found radiation measurements exceeding the criterion for evacuation 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in the village of Iitate, Reuters reports.

"We have advised (Japan) to carefully assess the situation and they have indicated that it is already under assessment," Denis Flory, a deputy director general of the IAEA, told Reuters.

Japan's evacuation zone is currently 20 kilometers from the plant. It advises those up to 30 kilometers away to leave as well, and if they do not, they should remain indoors.

The level of the isotope, cesium 137, measured in Iitate exceeded the standard the Soviet Union used when evacuating people near the Chernobyl reactor disaster in 1986, the New York Times reports. Officials found measurements of the isotope at more than double that standard at an undisclosed location.

These levels would not be high enough to cause radiation illness but should be avoided to cut cancer risks, it states.

Amid the continuing troubles at the nuclear plant, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited evacuees at a center in Tokyo on Wednesday to lend their support and encouragement to survivors of the March 11 tsunami and earthquake that devastated much of the country and triggered a nuclear accident.

The official death toll from the disaster reached 11,362 Wednesday. More than 16,000 remain missing and hundreds of thousands now live in shelters, some lacking adequate food and supplies.

Many of the refugees who fled their homes due to the troubles at the nuclear plant have said they feel betrayed by the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), AFP reports.

"Many of us feel betrayed," Tomoko Sato, 55, who is living in a refuge center 120 miles north of the plant in Yokote, Akita prefecture, told AFP. "We were told again and again it was safe."

Tens of thousands fled their homes due to the nuclear incident. Some have found shelter at centers, others have had to fend for themselves as they battled the harsh March weather.

Many are angry with TEPCO for not providing better information and with the government for not ensuring that the plant was operating safely enough.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy plans to visit Tokyo Thursday, making him the first foreign leader in the country since the earthquake and tsunami that triggered a massive humanitarian crisis and nuclear accident.

Japan said Wednesday it is to decommission reactors at its disaster-hit Fukushima nuclear plant and overhaul nuclear safety procedures after admitting serious failings in its battle to contain dangerous levels of radiation.

TEPCO -- whose president Masataka Shimizu has been hospitalized with high blood pressure and dizziness -- said the shutdown of four damaged reactors was inevitable.

Japan's Trade Ministry, responsible for the safety of the country's expanding nuclear energy program, said in a statement that tougher new regulations would be drafted to in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that triggered the world's worst atomic crisis in decades.

-- Hanna Ingber Win, Barry Neild