Japan nuclear crisis: Fukushima alert eased

A woman who lost her family in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami prays in the city of Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture on May 2, 2011
Image caption The tsunami crushed many people's homes in the alert zone

Restrictions on residents living between 20-30km (12-19 miles) from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant will be eased, Japanese officials say.

The government issued an alert to people in the zone to be prepared to evacuate at short notice after the 11 March earthquake and tsunami.

But officials say the alert will be lifted in the coming weeks, as they try to reassure people the area is safe.

The Fukushima crisis is the world's worst nuclear accident in a generation.

Three of the plant's reactors melted down after the tsunami and 9.0-magnitude quake wrecked cooling systems. The Fukushima plant continues to leak radioactive material.

The government has been widely criticised for its handling of the crisis, which revealed serious flaws in the nuclear industry's regulatory systems and safety standards.

Homes and businesses within 20km of the plant were evacuated, while those up to 30km were put on alert for evacuation

Food scares

Officials said on Tuesday that about 28,500 people had already left the alert zone - a large area of which was devastated by the tsunami.

But about 30,000 still remained, according to the government.

"We have hoped to let evacuees return to their ordinary lives as soon as possible. It took five months to finally start the process," said Goshi Hosono, the minister in charge of the nuclear crisis.

"We will carry this out very cautiously."

Although no-one has died as a result of the nuclear crisis, the meltdown at Fukushima has turned large section of the public against nuclear power.

Public concerns have been fuelled by a string of revelations about contaminated food products such as beef, leafy vegetables and milk.

On Tuesday, lobby group Greenpeace claimed it had tested fish caught in the sea 55km from the plant, and had detected higher levels of caesium than normal.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan, struggling to hold on to power amid collapsing popularity, has taken on the anti-nuclear cause and promised to reduce Japan's reliance on nuclear energy.

About 30% of Japan's electricity was nuclear generated before the Fukushima crisis.

But since the crisis, two-thirds of the country's reactors have remained closed as the government tries to stave off concerns over safety by carrying out stress tests.

Much of the country has instituted power saving measures such as rolling blackouts in a bid to save energy.