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updated 4/15/2011 8:22:28 PM ET 2011-04-16T00:22:28

Japan's government on Friday ordered the operator of a tsunami-damaged nuclear plant leaking radiation to pay about $12,000 to each household forced to evacuate from the area.

Tens of thousands of residents unable to return to their homes near the nuclear plant are bereft of their livelihoods and possessions, unsure of when, if ever, they will be able to return home. Some have traveled hundreds of kilometers (miles) to Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s headquarters in Tokyo to press their demands for compensation.

Hiroaki Wada, a Trade Ministry spokesman, said Friday that TEPCO will pay compensation as soon as possible, with families forced to evacuate getting 1 million yen (about $12,000) and individuals getting 750,000 yen (about $9,000).

Story: Evacuees slam Japan nuclear plant operator

"There are around 150 evacuation centers alone. It will take some time until everyone gets money. But we want the company to quickly do this to support people's lives," Trade Minister Banri Kaieda said at a news conference.

The arrangement is a provisional one, with more compensation expected, Wada said. Roughly 48,000 households living within about 19 miles (30 kilometers) of the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant would be eligible for the payments.

TEPCO's president, Masataka Shimizu, was expected to formally announce the plan later Friday. The company is still struggling to stabilize the nuclear plant, which saw its cooling systems fail after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11 triggered a massive tsunami that wrecked emergency backup systems as well as much of the plant's regular equipment.

Radiation leaks from the crisis have contaminated crops and left fishermen in the region unable to sell their catches, a huge blow to an area heavily dependent on fishing and farming.

The governor of Fukushima, Yuhei Sato, has vigorously criticized both TEPCO and the government for their handling of the disaster, demanding faster action.

Story: Japan struggles to explain delay on radiation report

"This is just a beginning. The accident has not ended. We will continue to ask the government and TEPCO to fully compensate evacuees."

Nearly 140,000 people are still living in shelters after losing their homes or being advised to evacuate because of concerns about radiation.

Image: Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko talk with an evacuee at an evacuation center in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture, Japan
Koji Sasahara  /  Pool via AP
Emperor Akihito, second from left, and Empress Michiko, left, talk with an evacuee at a shelter on Thursday. The imperial couple's visit was aimed at lifting the spirits of some 1,400 evacuees from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Seeking to console evacuees, Japan's emperor visited the country's disaster zone for the first time Thursday.

In Asahi, where 13 people were killed and some 3,000 homes damaged, Emperor Akihito, 77, and Empress Michiko got their first look at the devastation, somberly gazing at a plot of land where a home once stood and also commiserating with evacuees at two shelters.

The royal couple kneeled on mats to speak quietly with the survivors, who bowed in gratitude and wiped away tears. One evacuee with Down syndrome, who has trouble speaking, wrote "I will keep striving" in a small notebook that he showed to the emperor and empress. Asahi is about 55 miles (85 kilometers) east of Tokyo.

Story: Experts: Store blood cells from Japan nuke workers

Even as the month-old emergency dragged on, radiation levels dropped enough for police sealed in white protective suits, goggles and blue gloves to begin searching for bodies amid the muddy debris inside a six-mile (10-kilometer) radius around the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant that had been off-limits.

Population near U.S. nuclear plants

Authorities believe up to 1,000 bodies are lodged in the debris. A police spokesman, who gave only the surname Sato, said searchers were working Friday to recover three of the 10 bodies they located on Thursday that were trapped in cars or debris.

Overall, the bodies of only about 13,500 of the more than 26,000 people believed killed in the March 11 disaster have been recovered, with most thought to have been washed out to sea.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Contaminated corpses removed in Japan

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Kawauchimura Village in the Radius of 20-30 km from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
    Koichi Kamoshida / EPA
    Above: Slideshow (9) Devastation in Japan after quake
  2. Image: Magnitude 8.9 Strong Earthquake Jolts Northern Japan
    Xinhua via Getty Images
    Slideshow (46) Triple tragedy for Japan

Timeline: Crisis in Japan

How events have unfolded since a 9.0 earthquake struck northeast Japan, triggering a deadly tsunami and nuclear power disaster.

  1. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
    Ho / Reuters
    Above: Timeline Crisis in Japan
  2. Interactive Japan before and after the disaster

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