TOKYO — Angry residents forced from their homes near Japan's tsunami-stricken nuclear power plant gathered in protest at the Tokyo headquarters of the plant's operator Wednesday, demanding compensation as the company's president pledged to do more to help those affected by the crisis.
"I can't work and that means I have no money," said Shigeaki Konno, 73, an auto repair mechanic, who lived seven miles (11 kilometers) from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant before he was evacuated along with tens of thousands of others due to radiation fears. "The talk about compensation is not concrete. We need it quickly."
The protest by about 20 small business owners from communities near the plant reflects growing public frustration with Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s handling of the nuclear crisis that erupted when a tsunami triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11 wrecked its cooling systems and backup generators.
TEPCO's president, Masataka Shimizu, and other company executives bowed in apology, once again, on Wednesday, after Shimizu pledged to do more to help compensate residents unable to return home or work due to the accident.
Cash payments are being "readied as soon as possible," Shimizu said.
He said the company "will do our utmost" to get the plant's reactors under control and curb radiation leaks that prompted the government to revise its rating of the incident to the worst possible, on a par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
TEPCO manager Kensuke Takeuchi told Konno and the other protesters the company was not yet prepared to give any money, but he promised to convey their demands to higher level management.
"You are eating a warm meal every day," said Konno, complaining that the two pieces of bread provided daily at the evacuation center where he is staying were not fit to be fed to dogs.
"I am not asking for anything more than I am entitled to. I just want my due," said Ichijiro Ishikawa, 69, a construction worker who lived eight miles (13 kilometers) from the plant.
Japan's leaders are urging a return to normality, with Prime Minister Naoto Kan exhorting the public Tuesday in a televised address to build an "even more marvelous country."
Work on repairing damage at the plant and ending radiation leaks has been impeded by aftershocks, fires, explosions and other glitches in the improvised efforts to restore its cooling systems.
"I think we are making progress toward stabilizing" the reactors, Shimizu told reporters.
Nuclear safety officials and TEPCO reported no major changes Wednesday, a day after the government ranked the accident there at the highest possible severity, 7, on an international scale.
The higher rating was open recognition that the nuclear crisis has become the second-worst in history after the catastrophe in Chernobyl, but it did not signal a worsening of the plant's status in recent days or any new health dangers.
Still, Kan warned that the situation remained unpredictable. Radioactive isotopes have been detected in tap water, fish and vegetables far from the facility.
Shipments of produce from 16 cities, towns and villages around Fukushima Dai-ichi have been banned. On Wednesday, the government added wood-grown shiitake mushrooms raised outdoors to a list of vegetables banned for shipping to markets after high levels of radiation were detected in tests over the weekend.
The nuclear crisis has hit farmers and fishermen in northeastern Japan hardest, though widespread damage to factories, ports and other infrastructure is also taking a huge toll on the world's No. 3 economy.
The government downgraded its economic outlook for the first time in six months on Wednesday, saying in a monthly Cabinet report that drops in production and consumer spending would be a drag on growth.
The Finance Ministry is drafting an extra budget to finance post-tsunami reconstruction efforts. Local reports have said the budget could exceed 5 trillion yen ($59 billion).
Underscoring how a supply crunch from the disasters is affecting regions beyond Japan, Toyota Motor Corp., the world's No. 1 automaker, announced it is suspending production in Europe for eight days due to parts shortages. Last week, it said it would temporarily halt car production in North America this month.
Still, work on recovery and reconstruction is progressing. The region took a step forward Wednesday with the reopening of a coastal airport that had been swamped by the tsunami.
Staff at the Sendai airport stood on the tarmac waving as passengers emerged from a JAL Express flight emblazoned with the logo "Hang in there, Japan." It was the first flight since the 32-foot (10-meter) wall of water raced across the airport's runways and slammed cars and aircraft into its terminals.
The area around the airport, which sits about half a mile (a kilometer) from the shoreline, remains a twisted wasteland of mud, uprooted trees and the remnants of smashed buildings and cars. Soldiers were sifting through the debris looking for the bodies of some of the more than 15,000 people still missing after the twin disasters. The final death toll is expected to top 25,000.
The airport will handle only a few daytime flights for now and just one terminal is running, but its opening should help with relief efforts in regional communities virtually obliterated by the tsunami.
"We can only operate in a small area, but I think it's a great step toward recovery," said Naohito Nakano, an operations manager for Japan Airlines.
Hiroshi Abe, 41, whose parents are among the missing, was preparing to board a flight back to the western city of Osaka.
"There's not really anything I can do there now, so I'm flying home," Abe said. "Now that flights are open again I know it will be much easier for me to go back."
Associated Press writers Jay Alabaster in Sendai and Shino Yuasa in Tokyo contributed to this report.