TOKYO – Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Thursday declared the 20-kilometre (12-mile) evacuation area around the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant a legal no-entry zone.
The move, due to come into effect at midnight local time (1500 GMT), came after police found more than 60 families still living inside the zone around the plant that was hit by the March 11 quake and tsunami.
The plant, where reactor cooling systems were knocked out, has been hit by a series of explosions and leaked radiation into the air, ground and sea in the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl 25 years ago.
"The plant has not been stable," Kan's top spokesman, Yukio Edano, told reporters. "We have been asking residents not to enter the area as there is a huge risk to their safety.
"Today, as we have finished arrangements with local authorities, we have decided to designate the area an emergency area based on disaster law."
The government declared a 20 kilometre exclusion zone around the plant after the quake disaster, as well as a wider 30 kilometre radius in which people were first urged to stay indoors and later encouraged to also evacuate.
People in some towns further afield will also soon be told to leave because of the risks of long-term radiation exposure, the government has said.
Each household within the 20 kilometre area will be allowed to send one member back into their home for two hours to pick up personal belongings.