Japan's government expanded the evacuation area around a damaged nuclear plant yesterday after fierce criticism that people living outside the 12-mile zone were being exposed to too much radiation.
The announcement was followed by one of the strongest aftershocks since the 11 March earthquake and tsunami that left 300 miles of the north-east coast in ruins and kicked off the nuclear crisis. Yesterday's 7.0-magnitude tremor, which struck just south of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, triggered a tsunami alert and forced engineers to pull out of the facility after electricity supplies were briefly cut off.
Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which operates the plant that has been leaking radiation since the twin disaster knocked out its cooling systems, said it suffered no further damage in the quake.
Tepco workers have been struggling to bring Fukushima under control, spraying water on three overheating reactors and battling to contain a build-up of toxic water. A string of explosions at the plant sprayed contamination over a wide area of the surrounding countryside and rain is thought to have also spread radiation 25 miles away.
Yukio Edano, a government spokesman, explained that the wider exclusion zone was aimed at protecting people near the plant from accumulated radiation: "These new evacuation plans are meant to ensure safety against risks of living there for half a year or one year."
The government's decision follows criticism that villages and towns beyond the 12-mile zone were being contaminated by growing levels of long-life caesium and other toxic substances. Iitate, roughly 25 miles from the plant, is among a string of villages that will have to be evacuated. About 1,000 of its population of 6,000 have been moved to temporary housing.
Yesterday's quake almost overshadowed events to mark the one-month anniversary of the magnitude-9.0 quake, which sparked Japan's worst disaster since the Second World War. Thousands of people bowed their heads and prayed, and some wept for the 28,000 people dead or missing. Over 150,000 people are homeless.
Tepco's beleaguered president Masataka Shimizu also paid his first visit yesterday to Fukushima's local government offices since the crisis began and apologised, but angry local governor Yuhei Sato snubbed him.
"What [the president] should prioritise now is to settle the nuclear plant's trouble," said Mr Sato, who refused to meet Mr Shimizu or accept an apology.