TOKYO -- Japan's prime minister pledged Wednesday in his traditional new year's press conference to bring "rebirth" to the area around the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said authorities would work to decontaminate the region from radioactive fallout, while ensuring compensation and health checks for those affected by the disaster.
"These three pillars will bring the rebirth of Fukushima," he said. Noda gave no timeframe, and government officials have said it may be years or even decades before many of the 100,000 residents displaced by the disaster can return.
The nuclear crisis, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986, was triggered by damage from an earthquake and tsunami in March. It spewed radiation into the surrounding soil, water and forests. A 20-kilometer (12-mile) region around the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant plus some adjacent areas remain off-limits.
On Dec. 16, the government declared that the plant had achieved "cold shutdown conditions," and was essentially stable, but Noda stressed that "the battle against the accident is not over."
A government-sponsored investigation released last week found the response was confused and riddled with problems, and that authorities delayed disclosing information about dangerous radiation leaks.
The interim report criticized officials' use of the term "soteigai," meaning "outside our imagination," implied a shirking of responsibility. By labeling events as such, officials invited public distrust, it said.
When asked about how he might work to regain public confidence, Noda – who took office in September – said authorities have worked to release accurate information in timely fashion, but if that still needed improving, the government would work to correct that.
"This nuclear accident is something that people all around the country are concerned about, so transmitting the information accurately and appropriately is fundamental," he said.
Noda said he planned to visit Fukushima on Sunday, and wanted to listen to the opinions of those affected by the crisis.
He also promised to revive Japan's weak economy and tackle social security reform as the country's population rapidly ages.
Noda said that this week he planned to complete a final draft of the party's tax and social reform plan calling for Japan's sales tax to double, from 5 percent to 10 percent, by 2015. The sales tax would rise to 8 percent in 2014.
Noda said he hoped to hold talks with opposition parties, which control the less powerful upper house of parliament, as early as next week, and to submit the bill to parliament by the end of fiscal year, which ends in March.
Noda said the government's social security costs have been growing steadily and reforms should not be delayed any longer.
"We have reached a point where it is even difficult to sustain our current level of social security system," he said.