Japan will issue fines of up to $1,200 and possibly arrest anyone entering the 12-mile evacuation zone around the crippled and leaking Fukushima nuclear plant, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Thursday.
The Japanese government removed thousands of people from the zone after the crippled nuclear plant began leaking radiation but had not yet enforced that evacuation order by law.
Many of the about 78,000 people who have homes in the evacuation zone have gone back in recent weeks to retrieve belongings and check on businesses and other personal effects.
Edano said the decision was taken after it was found that the situation at the stricken nuclear plant was not yet stable.
"Today we have decided to designate the area an emergency area based on disaster law," Edano said. "We have been asking residents not to enter the area as there is a huge risk to their safety," he said. "Unfortunately, there are still some people living in areas we really don't want them to enter."
Brief re-entry will be permitted — Edano said arrangements will be made for one member of each household in the no-entry zone to make a short (two-hour) visit home to collect valuables and prized possessions, CNN reports. Those entering the zone will be required to wear a protective suit and ride on a designated bus.
Most of the evacuees are living in sports hall and gymnasiums as they wait to return home.
The order does not apply to workers at the Fukushima plant, who reported little progress Thursday in their efforts to remove highly radioactive water from one of the plant's six damaged reactors, VOA reported.
The operators of the plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, said this week that they were aiming for a cold shutdown of all reactors within six to nine months.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was scheduled to meet Thursday with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the first foreign head of government to visit Japan since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that damaged the plant and left more than 27,000 people dead or missing.