Image:A man, wearing a protective suite, shuts the curtains of a house in the deserted town of Futaba, inside the 20-kilometer (12-mile) evacuation zone, in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan
Sergey Ponomarev  /  AP
A man, wearing a protective suit, shuts the curtains of a house in the deserted town of Futaba, inside the 12-mile evacuation zone on Thursday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 4/21/2011 11:22:53 AM ET 2011-04-21T15:22:53

Residents rushed back into the 12-mile evacuation zone around Japan's radiation-spewing nuclear power plant Thursday, grabbing whatever belongings they could before an order went into effect legally banning entry to the area.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference that the ban would be introduced from midnight Thursday. Under the restriction, people can only go into the zone under government supervision.

"The setting of the no-entry zone and (last month's) evacuation instruction are aimed at securing the safety of the people," Edano said.

"We will take strict legal measures against those trying to enter the area," he said, without providing details. "For residents, all I can say is I ask for their understanding so that no legal action will be taken against them."

An earthquake with a magnitude of 6.3 hit the eastern portion of the country on Thursday evening, the U.S. Geological Survey said, but no tsunami warning was issued and there were no immediate reports of any casualties or damage.

'Our last chance'
A stream of evacuees ventured into deserted towns near the plant, some in white protective suits and others in face masks and rain gear they hoped would protect against radiation. Most raced through the zone with car windows closed, their vehicles crammed with clothing and valuables.

Interactive: Japan before and after the disaster (on this page)

"This is our last chance, but we aren't going to stay long. We are just getting what we need and getting out," said Kiyoshi Kitajima, an X-ray technician, who dashed to his hospital in Futaba, a town next-door to the plant, to collect equipment before the order went into effect at midnight.

Officials said the order announced Thursday was meant to limit exposure to radiation leaking from the plant and to prevent thefts. Almost all the zone's nearly 80,000 residents left when the area was evacuated on March 12, but police had not been able to legally block them from going back.

Police had no estimate Thursday of the exact number of people who have returned to the zone or who still might be living there.

Under a special nuclear emergency law, people who enter the zone will now be subject to fines of up to 100,000 yen ($1,200) or possible detention of up to 30 days. Up to now, defiance of the evacuation order was not punishable by law.

The order angered some residents who fled their homes nearly empty-handed when they were told to evacuate after last month's tsunami and earthquake wrecked the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant's power and cooling systems.

"I initially thought we would be able to return within a few days. So I brought nothing except a bank card," said Kazuko Suzuki, 49, also from Futaba.

"I really want to go back. I want to check if our house is still there," said Suzuki, who fled with her teenage son and daughter. "My patience has run out. I just want to go home."

The no-go order was not due to any particular change in conditions inside the plant, which appear to have somewhat stabilized. Even under the best-case scenario, however, the plant's operator says it will take at least six months to bring its reactors safely into a cold shutdown.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said authorities would arrange brief visits, allowing one person per household to return by bus for a maximum of two hours to collect necessary belongings. Participants would have to go through radiation screening, he said.

"We beg the understanding of residents. We really want residents not to enter the areas," Edano told reporters. "Unfortunately, there are still some people in the areas."

Residents chafed at the limit to just one person per household.

One zone will be off-limits
No visits will be allowed in a two-mile area closest to the plant, said Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, confirming reports that zone would be completely off-limits.

Details were still being worked out.

Katsunobu Sakurai, mayor of Minami Soma, where about half the 71,000 residents lived in areas that will now be off-limits, questioned the rationale for the way the evacuation zone was decided.

"It feels like some outsider who doesn't know anything about our geography sat at a desk and drew these circles," Sakurai said. "The zones have zero scientific basis. Radiation doesn't travel in neat circles. Just putting up circles around the plant is unreasonable."

Image: Police officers stop cars at a checkpoint near the town of Namie, inside the 20-kilometer (12-mile) evacuation zone, in Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan
Sergey Ponomarev  /  AP
Police officers stop cars at a checkpoint near the town of Namie, inside the 20-kilometer (12-mile) evacuation zone, in Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan, Thursday, April 21, 2011.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has been under fire from the opposition over the government's handling of the crisis, visited the region Thursday, giving a giving a pep talk to workers at a nuclear crisis management center in Fukushima.

Fukushima's governor, who has also been critical of the government's performance, said he urged Kan to ensure the government properly handles the disaster and related compensation issues.

"I told the prime minister that I strongly hope that evacuees can return home as early as possible," said the governor, Yuhei Sato.

"Are you leaving?" one man shouted as Kan and his entourage headed for the door at a Fukushima evacuation center. "We are evacuees. Are you just going to ignore us?"

Kan turned back and apologized, only to be berated again.

"You should bring cabinet ministers here and let them try living here themselves. How do you think we feel? We want you to somehow get the nuclear plant under control," one woman said.

Later, Kan told reporters he had been out of touch with the needs of those who had lost their homes.

"I thought I knew how the people here felt but by coming here and actually talking to them, I got the renewed sense that I need to stand in their shoes more and think about their needs," he said.

Meanwhile, new data from Japan's National Police Agency showed that two-thirds of the victims identified in last month's earthquake and tsunami were elderly — and almost all of them drowned.

The agency said 65 percent of the 11,108 confirmed fatalities of known age were 60 or older. Another 1,899 victims were of unknown age.

Story: Tsunami warnings, written in stone, saved some

Adding those who are still missing, the earthquake and resulting tsunami killed an estimated 27,500 people. The police agency said nearly 93 percent of the victims had drowned. Others perished in fires, were crushed to death or died from other causes.

The northeastern coast hardest hit by the disasters had a high concentration of elderly residents.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Interactive: Japan before and after the disaster

These aerial photos show locations in Japan before and after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck March 11. Use the slider below the images to reveal the changes in the landscape.

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

Photos: Triple tragedy for Japan

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  1. Office workers in Tokyo look at smoke rising over the skyline after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan's northeast coast on March 11, 2011. (Xinhua via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Waves pour over a seawall and roar into a seaside village near the mouth of Hei River on March 11 as the tsunami generated by the massive earthquake hits shore. (Mainichi Newspaper via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Hotel employees squat around a pillar at the hotel's entrance in Tokyo after the powerful earthquake on March 11. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A tsunami wave sweeps away homes in its path in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 11. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. One house bursts into flames after the tsunami swept it and many of its neighbors off their foundations in Natori on March 11. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Shaken evacuees gather in Shinjuku Central Park in Tokyo on March 11. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. An aerial photo shows Sendai Airport being inundated by a tsunami on March 11. Later reports said the first wave hit 26 minutes after the quake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A swirling pattern is evident in this aerial photo of the tsunami as it hit a port in Oarai, Ibaraki prefecture on March 11. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Toya Chiba, a reporter for local newspaper Iwate Tokai Shimbun, is swept away while taking pictures at the mouth of the Owatari River during the tsunami at Kamaishi port, Iwate prefecture. Chiba managed to survive in the rush of water by grabbing a dangling rope and climbing onto a coal heap around 30 feet high after being swept away for about 100 feet, Kyodo News reports. (Kamaishi Port Office / Kyodo via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Natural gas containers burn in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo, on March 11. The massive earthquake triggered many fires, posing additional problems for first responders. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Containers for cargo are strewn about like giant Legos in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 12. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. People use a floating container to ferry survivors to higher ground in Kesennuma City, Miyagi prefecture, on March 12. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Cars swept into a jumble by the tsunami are seen in Hitachi City, Ibaraki prefecture, on March 12. (Yomiuri via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A line of residents seeking water snakes across the playground of a school in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13, two days after the earthquake. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Japanese firefighters rescue tsunami survivors in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Japanese home drifts in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sendai in this photograph taken on March 13. (Dylan McCord / U.S. Navy via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A woman cries while sitting on a road in the devastated city of Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (Asahi Shimbun / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. An "SOS" signal scrawled on the sports field of a high school beckons potential rescuers on March 13 in the town of Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    The body of a victim of the twin disaster lays on the stairs of a destroyed house in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Sixty-year-old Hiromitsu Shinkawa waves to members of Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force preparing to rescue him about 9 miles off Fukushima prefecture on March 13. Shinkawa survived by clinging to a piece of roof after the tsunami hit his hometown of Minamisoma. (Japanese Defense Forces via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. People walk along a flooded street in Ishimaki City, Miyagi prefecture on March 13. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. An explosion at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant sends a plume of smoke skyward on March 14. The blast was believed to have been caused by a buildup of hydrogen inside the reactor building, caused by the partial meltdown of nuclear fuel inside. The plant was crippled after the earthquake cut power to the station and tsunami waves knocked out backup generators. (NTV / FCT) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A 1-year-old boy is re-checked for radiation exposure after being decontaminated in Nihonmatsu, Fukushiima prefecture, on March 14. (Toru Nakata / Asahi Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Officers examine a Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jet of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force on March 14. The warplane was swept by the tsunami into a building at Matsushima base in Higashimatsushima, Iwate prefecture. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Japanese rescue team members carry the body of a man out of the village of Saito on March 14. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A woman survivor is reunited with her relatives at a shelter in Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture, on March 15. (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A bicyclist wheels across a hellish landscape in what was the city of Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on March 15. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tsunami survivors cook on an open fire in front of their damaged house in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 15. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Vehicle headlamps illuminate a devastated section of Yamada town, Iwate prefecture, on March 16. (Jiji Press via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Evacuees carry bowls of pork soup from a soup kitchen to a makeshift shelter in Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on March 16. (Tsuyoshi Matsumoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Refugees, including 53 people who were rescued from a retirement home during the tsunami, take shelter inside a school gym in the leveled city of Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture, on March 17. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Members of Japan Self-Defense Force pray over the body of a tsunami victim in Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture, on March 20. (Shuji Kajiyama / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Tomoko Yagi looks at two firetrucks that were tossed around like toys in the tsunami in Kamaishi, Iwate prefecture, on March 20. (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Survivors relay boxes of relief supplies arriving at their evacuation center in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, on March 21. (Kunihiko Miura / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A boat juts out from the top of a building in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture, on March 22. (Hiroto Nomoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Manami Kon, 4, uses the Japanese "hiragana" characters she just learned to write a letter to her missing mother in the devastated city of Miyako, Iwate prefecture, on March 22 . "Dear Mommy. I hope you're alive. Are you OK?" read the letter, which took about an hour to write. Also missing were the little girl's father and sister. (Norikazu Tateishi / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Tokyo Electric Power Co. workers collect data in the control room for the Unit 1 and 2 reactors at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on March 23. (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. An aerial photo taken by an unmanned drone shows the damaged units of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant on March 24. (Air Photo Service via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Two residents exchange words as they are reunited two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami in a makeshift public bath set up outside a shelter in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture, on March 25. (Shuji Kajiyama / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A Japanese funeral parlor worker shovels dirt onto the coffins of victims of the earthquake and tsunami at a mass funeral in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture, on March 26. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. A lone pine tree stands in a devastated area iof Rikuzentakaka, Iwate prefecture, on March 27. It was the only one among tens of thousands of other pine trees forming "Takata Matsubara," or Takata seaside pine forest, standing after the March 11 tsunami washed away all the others, local media said. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. A woman whose house was washed away loses control of her emotions on March 29 as she talks about the disaster that befell her hometown of Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. (Kuni Takahashi) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, left, talk with evacuees at Tokyo Budoh-kan evacuation center on March 30. (Issei Kato / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Officials of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., (TEPCO), including Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, center, Vice President Takashi Fujimoto, second from left, bow before a news conference at the company's head office in Tokyo on March 30. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. A man rides a bicycle in between the ships that were washed ashore by the March 11 tsunami, on March 30, in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. (Eugene Hoshiko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. An elderly woman waves to her grandchildren in Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on April 3, as authorities began a mass evacuation of approximately 1,100 homeless survivors to shelters elsewhere. (Jiji Press via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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