Japan's parliament passes tsunami recovery budget
TOKYO – Japan's parliament passed a $48 billion tsunami recovery budget Monday that will only start to cover the cost of what was the most expensive disaster ever.
As more budgetary battles lie ahead, mounting frustrations over the government's response to the tsunami and the still-unfolding nuclear crisis at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant are threatening to topple the country's prime minister.
The 4 trillion yen budget supplement to the fiscal year that started in April was unanimously approved by parliament's upper house budget committee Monday morning and was made into law at the chamber's plenary session later in the day. The more powerful lower house had approved the plan Saturday.
The budget will cover the building of new houses for the more than 100,000 people who remain without proper shelter, the massive undertaking of clearing debris and rubble, reconstruction of fishing grounds, and support for disaster-hit businesses and their employers.
"I'm anxious to get the budget plan approved as quickly as possible so that we can reimburse funds for the projects immediately," Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda said at the budget committee meeting.
Further outlays are expected to follow in the months ahead, he said.
The March 11 magnitude-9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami, which wiped out large swaths of Japan's northeastern coastline, are believed to have caused an estimated $300 billion in damage, making it the most expensive disaster ever. More than 26,000 people are dead or missing.
Though the budget passed relatively smoothly, Prime Minister Naoto Kan's government is coming under growing pressure and can expect greater opposition from rival parties in future budget negotiations.
"We support this budget plan just because of the urgent need to fund reconstruction projects," said Mikishi Daimon, an opposition lawmaker from the Communist Party.
Opposition leaders have called on Kan — who was already unpopular before the disaster — to step down for his handling of the aftermath, particularly his response to the subsequent crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.
A poll released Monday by the Asahi, a major newspaper, found 55 percent of respondents have "few expectations" for Kan's Cabinet to handle the disaster response properly. Only 27 percent said they were "hopeful," according to the nationwide telephone survey conducted April 23 and 24 among 1,842 randomly selected households. A poll of that size would normally have a margin of error of plus- or minus-3 percentage points.
The budget does not include any government support for the massive compensation liability of the nuclear plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano made clear Monday that TEPCO bears unlimited liability because the tsunami and quake were "not impossible to foresee" and not an exception under the nuclear accident compensation law.
TEPCO spokesman Takashi Kurita said the operator was preparing to install an air purifier inside the Unit 1 reactor building to reduce radioactivity by 95 percent over the next few days. That step would allow workers into the area for the first time so they can resume their primary goal of restoring cooling systems knocked out by the tsunami.
In an unrelated development, unusually high radiation levels were detected inside a nuclear plant in Fukui, on the Japan Sea well away from the northeast coast devastated by the tsunami.
The abnormality was contained within the plant's cooling system, caused no outside leaks and the plant was still running, said Mitsuru Marutani, of the Japan Atomic Power Co. He said the plant would be gradually closed for an inspection.