Image: Protesters march at an anti-nuclear rally in Tokyo
Kim Kyung-hoon  /  REUTERS
More than 1,000 protesters march at an anti-nuclear rally in Tokyo on Saturday, one day after Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan called for a halt at the Hamaoka nuclear plant in central Japan.
msnbc.com news services
updated 5/8/2011 1:33:14 AM ET 2011-05-08T05:33:14

Radiation levels dropped inside the No. 1 reactor building at the tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan enough that there should be no problem opening the building's doors, it's operator says, Kyodo News reported Sunday.

Word of the easing came as several thousand Japanese anti-nuclear protesters marched in the rain, welcoming a call from Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Friday to shut down another plant and urging him to close more to avoid another nuclear crisis.

The Fukushima plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), said the radiation drop was due to a ventilator installed in the building on Thursday to filter out radioactive substances.

The double-entry doors that connect the reactor building with an adjacent turbine building will be opened to allow workers to reenter the site and build a new cooling system for the reactor, the most severely damaged at the six-reactor plant, TEPCO said.

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TEPCO said it had reported its plan to take the measure to the government's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency for review, and that it would open the doors after consulting local governments.

Radioactivity levels at the plant should stabilize in six to nine months.

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TEPCO crews on Friday began increasing the amount of water being injected into the crippled No. 1 reactor in an effort to stably cool the damaged nuclear fuel inside, Kyodo News reported.

When radiation drops to permissible levels, specialists will attempt to restart the reactor's cooling system, knocked out by the magnitude-9 earthquake and ensuing tsunami March 11.

The toll due to the double disaster has reached 14,877, while 9,960 people were still unaccounted for through Saturday, according to the National Police Agency.

Kan's surprise call on Friday to shut down Chubu Electric Power Co.'s Hamaoka plant followed pressure on the government to review nuclear energy policy after a March 11 quake and tsunami damaged another plant and triggered the worst disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

Tens of thousands of residents around the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant on the northeast coast have been ordered to evacuate after radiation leaks into the air, soil and sea. Radiation checks have led to shipment bans of some vegetables and fish.

Students, labor union members and parents with children hoisted on their shoulders marched through Tokyo's bustling Shibuya district to music and chants, carrying flags written with "Close all nuke plants at once!" and "No More Fukushima."

"After Chernobyl, we collectively forgot the seriousness, the horror of nuclear power," said Takashi Enari, a businessman who said he also protested outside the Fukushima plant after the 1986 disaster in Ukraine.

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"I have always thought that they should close Hamaoka. There needs to be a rethinking of energy policy in this country," he said, as other protesters marched wearing hazard masks and carrying colorful balloons.

Media said on Saturday that Japan's anti-nuclear movement, small and ignored by the general public until the Fukushima crisis, could become even more vocal after Kan's call for a Hamaoka shutdown.

Kan said he made the decision "out of concerns for public safety," citing a forecast by government experts that put at 87 percent the chance of a magnitude 8.0 quake hitting the area served by Chubu Electric within the next 30 years.

However, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku said Sunday that Japan will "stick to nuclear power as a national energy policy." He made the comment on a talk show on public broadcaster NHK.

Sengoku also said the government has no plans to halt nuclear reactors other than three at the Hamaoka power plant in central Japan.

Chubu Electric held a board meeting on Saturday to discuss Kan's decision, but did not reach a decision on whether to comply with his request, which is not legally binding.

"The decision is still under discussion," a spokesman said. "We therefore cannot say when exactly the decision will be made, but we would like to reach one quickly."

The government is conducting a safety review of all Japan's 54 nuclear reactors after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant was crippled.

The Hamaoka nuclear plant just 110 yards (100 meters) off the Pacific coast in central Japan is the only one so far where the government has asked that operations be halted until the utility can implement safety measures.

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Since the March 11 disasters, Chubu Electric has drawn up safety measures that include building a seawall nearly a mile (1.5 kilometers) long over the next two to three years.

"The height of the seawall is at least 12 meters. We have come up with this safety measure after the March quake and tsunami," said Takanobu Yamada, an official at Chubu Electric.

The company also planned to erect concrete walls along 18 water pumps at the plant. Yamada said the walls aimed to protect the pumps from damage from an earthquake and tsunami, and it will take a year or one and a half years to complete the construction.

The plant does not have a concrete sea barrier now, but sandhills between the ocean and the plant are about 32 to 50 feet (10 to 15 meters) high, according to the company.

The seawall of at least 40 feet (12 meters) would be built between the sandhills and nuclear plant over the next two to three years. Yamada said Chubu Electric has estimated a tsunami reaching around 26 feet (8 meters).

Kan's Hamaoka decision signals a likely shift in Japan's energy policy, with the government now rethinking its target of boosting the country's reliance on nuclear to 50 percent of its power needs by 2030, up from a current 30 percent.

"I'm happy that Hamaoka is closing but I don't think it's enough," said social worker Akemi Nomura from Hiroshima, western Japan, at the anti-nuclear protest.

"I want the Yamaguchi plant to close too," she said, referring to a plant under construction near Hiroshima, one of two cities hit by atomic bombs dropped by the United States in 1945.

A Hamaoka shutdown could also make it difficult for other utilities to restart reactors now shut for planned maintenance, with local residents growing more worried about safety, the Nikkei business daily said on Saturday.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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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