ELAINE KURTENBACH and MARI YAMAGUCHI
TOKYO — Authorities may for the first time ban access to the evacuation zone around Japan's crippled nuclear plant, citing concerns Wednesday over radiation risks for residents who may be returning to check on their homes.
About 70,000-80,000 people were living in the 10 towns and villages within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, which has been leaking radiation after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami wrecked its power and cooling systems.
Virtually all left after being advised to do so, but some occasionally have returned, defying warnings from police who have set up roadblocks on only a few major roads in the area.
"We are considering setting up 'caution areas' as an option for effectively limiting entry" to the zone, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan will meet with local officials and evacuees to discuss the proposed measure during a visit to the affected region Thursday, Edano said.
Now that the situation at the plant appears to have stabilized somewhat, both residents and authorities are considering how to best weather a protracted evacuation. Residents have been demanding they be allowed to check their homes and collect belongings, while government officials are worried about radiation exposure.
Only a few warning signs, mainly about road conditions, have been erected in the area so far. Currently, there is no penalty for entering the area and police just not down the license plate numbers of those coming in. Officials say if there were a major accident, tracking down those inside would be nearly impossible.
"There are also issues surrounding non-residents who are entering the area. There are people who may steal things," said Noriyuki Shikata, one of Edano's deputies.
Shikata did not provide details of how the government might restrict entry to the area or when the restrictions would be put in place.
"There is a realization of a need to have a stronger enforcement of the area," said Shikata. "Both the issue of ... strong enforcement of the area and a realization of temporarily going back home is something we have to closely coordinate with local municipalities."
Kan, who will also visit a nuclear crisis management center during his Thursday trip, has been under fire from the opposition for the government's response to the nuclear crises. Edano implied that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. should have been better prepared.
"Aside from the question of whether the accident could have been predicted, there was not sufficient preparation based on an anticipation, and there is no mistake about that," he said. "We urge all nuclear operators to immediately take any possible precaution based on the lesson from the Fukushima nuclear accident, and not wait until details of the accident are examined."
In a step toward restoring the crippled plant's cooling systems, TEPCO has been pumping highly radioactive water from the basement of one of its turbine buildings to a makeshift storage area.
Removal of the first 10,000 metric tons (2.6 million gallons) of 25,000 metric tons (about 6.6 million gallons) of contaminated water that has collected just in the basement of the turbine building at Unit 2 of the plant began Tuesday and is expected to take at least 20 days, nuclear safety officials say. Fully ridding the plant of 70,000 tons (about 18.5 million gallons) of contaminated water in its turbine buildings and nearby trenches could take months.
Still, a senior official at the U.N. nuclear agency suggested the worst of the radiation leaks may be over in the worst nuclear power accident since the 1986 catastrophe in Chernobyl.
The total amount of radiation released is expected to be only a "small increase from what it is today" if "things go as foreseen," said Dennis Flory, a deputy director general at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
IAEA experts are discussing ways to help Japan meet targets laid out in a blueprint for ending the crisis that TEPCO released over the weekend. Its plans call for achieving a cold shutdown of the plant within nine months. But government officials acknowledge that setbacks could slow the timeline.
In the meantime, TEPCO is continuing to spray water into the reactors and their spent fuel storage pools to help prevent them from overheating and releasing still more radiation.
TEPCO plans to use technology developed by French nuclear engineering giant Areva to reduce radioactivity and remove salt from the contaminated water inside the plant so that it can be reused to cool the reactors, said Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
This process would take "several months," he said.
TEPCO said Wednesday it has begun distributing applications for compensation to residents forced to evacuate from their homes around the plant. The company is offering about $12,000 per household as interim compensation.
People elsewhere in the disaster zone who lost homes and suffered from other damage say help has been slow to materialize.
Meanwhile, trade figures showed Japan's exports fell for the first time in 16 months in March, hit by the fallout from the disasters, which destroyed factories and damaged ports.
Auto exports especially took a beating, falling by 28 percent, as Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. were forced to suspend Japanese production due to shortages of components.
Associated Press writers Eric Talmadge in Fukushima and Malcolm Foster and Shino Yuasa in Tokyo contributed to this report.