Tokyo: Japan`s government moved a step closer Wednesday to multi-billion-dollar compensation payouts for the victims of the country`s enduring nuclear crisis, but angry farmers demanded faster action.
Parliament passed a law to create a state-backed entity that would help embattled operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) pay the compensation bill for the disaster, estimated to reach tens of billions of dollars.
Japan`s government has agreed to help TEPCO compensate evacuees and other victims, conceding in the law that the state is partly responsible because it has promoted nuclear energy for decades.
TEPCO also said in a short statement that it will move forward with "fair and prompt compensation" under the law and "with help from the government".
But almost five months since Japan`s worst quake on record and a massive tsunami hit the Fukushima plant, the crisis is continuing and authorities have no way yet of assessing how many people will eventually deserve compensation.
TEPCO detected lethal hotspots at the crippled plant this week, with radiation so high that it would kill a person within weeks if they were exposed to it for one hour.
Meanwhile a food safety crisis is widening, with beef shipments banned from four regions over the past fortnight after meat was found to be contaminated with caesium that rained onto the hay that the animals were fed.
The ban follows restrictions on some vegetables, dairy products, river fish, tea and other produce. Radiation has also been found in wheat, and the government is now testing rice fields in several prefectures.
While families across Japan have worried about the safety of their food, the crisis has crippled agriculture in the disaster-hit northeast, as demand for its farm and fisheries produce has all but collapsed.
About 300 farmers came to Tokyo on Wednesday, some bringing dairy cows in trailers, to stage a noisy protest outside the headquarters of TEPCO, near the capital`s central government district.
"Return our lives, return a green Fukushima," they yelled, waving signs that read: "No excuse, show your sincerity and compensate us."
Rice and vegetable farmer Toshihide Kameda, 63, from Fukushima prefecture, said orders this year were less than 20 percent of normal levels and gloom was spreading, with alcoholism on the rise among dispirited farmers.
"A growing number of people are killing themselves in Fukushima," he told AFP. "We are suffering from mental agony. We don`t know when we can return home, and we can`t work even though we want to."
Farmer Mitsuyo Tarukawa, 61, whose husband committed suicide in the wake of the nuclear accident, said: "Please clean up the contaminated soil. The soil is everything for farmers like us. Without it we can`t do anything."
As part of the compensation plans, the government will pitch in an initial 2 trillion yen ($26 billion) in the form of special government bonds, Kyodo News has reported, while TEPCO and other atomic power companies will also pay.
The law did not, however, spell out how much money each entity would contribute. Although it called for "cooperation from shareholders and other interested parties", it did not say what this would mean in detail.
It said TEPCO, whose share price has plummeted 80 percent since the quake, would have to eventually pay back all funds, and that it would be restructured under government supervision.
TEPCO has set itself the target of bringing all reactors to stable cold shutdown by January, and is now working to clean and recycle contaminated water from reactor cooling operations.