TOKYO -- Small business owners and laborers forced to leave their homes and jobs because of radiation leaking from Japan's tsunami-flooded nuclear plant rode a bus all the way to Tokyo on Wednesday to demand compensation from the plant's operator.
People are increasingly growing frustrated with Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s handling of the nuclear crisis, which has progressed fitfully since the March 11 tsunami swamped the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, knocking out important cooling systems. Restoring them will take months.
"I am not asking for anything more than I am entitled to," said Ichijiro Ishikawa, 69, who dug roads and tunnels and is now living in a shelter because his home is in a 12-mile (20-kilometer) evacuation zone around the plant. "I just want my due."
He and about 20 other people who lived and worked near the plant traveled 140 miles (220 kilometers) southwest to hand-deliver a letter to the president of Tokyo Electric, known as TEPCO. They said talks with the government over how to compensate victims will take too long to get started and they want money now. A few were near tears.
They met near company headquarters with four TEPCO officials who bowed to them in apology. President Masataka Shimizu later apologized during a two-hour news conference and pledged to do more, saying cash payments would be readied as soon as possible and the company would do its best to get the plant's reactors under control and stop radiation leaks.
"I offer my apologies for having spread radiation," he said. "I apologize from the bottom of my heart."
Shimizu declined to comment on whether he would resign to show he is taking responsibility for the crisis. He said his job is to deal with it, along with the problems of those evacuated and concerns about the energy supply.
TEPCO earlier said it will give evacuated towns 20 million yen ($240,000) each in "apology money," and analysts say massive compensation claims could cost it several trillion yen.
The government earlier this week revised its rating of the severity of the crisis to level 7, the worst possible on an international scale. The only other level 7 was the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl plant in what is now Ukraine, though that explosion released 10 times the radioactivity that has come from Fukushima Dai-ichi so far.
The nuclear crisis has hit farmers and fishermen in northeastern Japan hardest, though the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami caused widespread damage to factories, ports and other infrastructure that is taxing the world's No. 3 economy.
The government downgraded its economic outlook for the first time in six months on Wednesday, saying in a monthly Cabinet report that drops in production and consumer spending would limit growth.
The ravaged northeast coast had some rare good news Wednesday as the Sendai airport reopened. It had been closed since the 32-foot (10-meter) wall of water raced across the runways and slammed cars and aircraft into the airport's terminals.
Airport staff waved on the tarmac at passengers emerging from the first flight, a Japan Airlines Express plane emblazoned with the logo "Hang in there, Japan."
The airport will handle only a few daytime flights for now, but its opening should help with relief efforts in communities virtually obliterated by the disasters.
"We can only operate in a small area, but I think it's a great step toward recovery," said Naohito Nakano, an operations manager for JAL.
The area around the airport, about a half-mile (one kilometer) from shore, remains a twisted wasteland of mud, uprooted trees and the remnants of smashed buildings and cars. Soldiers were sifting through the debris looking for the bodies of some of the more than 15,000 people still missing since the earthquake and tsunami. The final death toll is expected to top 25,000.
Frequent aftershocks have been an unwelcome reminder of the disaster and have impeded efforts to restore the cooling systems at Fukushima Dai-ichi. TEPCO officials said Wednesday they are discussing ways to eventually remove spent fuel rods from storage pools as the plant is closed down for good.
Shipments of produce from 16 cities, towns and villages around the plant have been banned and the government Wednesday added wood-grown shiitake mushrooms raised outdoors to the list.
The evacuees who traveled to TEPCO's offices said farmers nearby have had to throw away milk because of contamination concerns and they need money to buy food for their cows.
On top of expenses associated with being away from home, Hideo Munakata, a 61-year-old construction worker, said he is buying bottled water for his children because of concerns about the tapwater. He also hasn't been able to return to the evacuation zone to get his tools.
"We have to think about our future," Munakata told The Associated Press. "Tokyo Electric must help us get our lives back."