TOKYO, Japan — Japanese authorities have allowed reporters to visit the Fukushima Daiichi power plant for the first time since it was crippled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, sparking the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), and the government arranged the tour in an attempt to demonstrate that, eight months on from the disaster, the plant has been largely stabilized.
"We are doing all we can to bring this crisis to an end," Tepco spokesman Yoshimi Hitosugi told an Associated Press reporter at the site. "We believe it is important to be transparent.”
Three of the plant’s six reactors suffered meltdown in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, which knocked out vital backup power supplies used to cool fuel rods. The resulting radiation leaks forced the evacuation of 80,000 people living inside a 12-mile radius of the facility.
Residents closest to the plant have been told it could be decades before their neighborhoods are safe enough to live in.
The authorities also face the task of removing more than 3 million tons of topsoil from contaminated farmland in Fukushima prefecture — enough to fill 20 football stadiums. The operation could end up costing 1.5 trillion yen.
Of the 36 reporters, photographers and camera crews permitted to visit the plant, only four represented foreign media organization, including just one print reporter.
Wearing protective suits and masks, they saw firsthand the devastation the tsunami left in its wake: vehicles that had been carried along by the wave, piles of rubble and large pools of water.
The site is littered with cranes used to lift debris and build shrouds for the damaged reactors, according to pool reports. Tanks are being used to hold thousands of tons of contaminated water, which is also being purified in a cleaning facility housed in a group of white tents.
Outside can be seen the flags of the United States, France and Japan, which made the technology for the decontamination system.
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The bases of the Nos. 1-4 reactors buildings are still filled with crumpled vehicles, twisted steel fencing and dented water tanks.
Goshi Hosono, the government minister overseeing the nuclear crisis, addressed some of the 3,300 workers who continue to work in shifts to bring the reactors under control, remove radioactive debris and prepare the plant for decommissioning.
Tepco has stated that it expects to bring the three damaged reactors to a safe state, known as cold shutdown, by the end of this year. “Until then, we will ensure we go on step by step without letting our guard down,” Hosono said.
He praised employees for improving the situation at the plant. “Every time I come back, I feel conditions have improved,” he reportedly told one worker. “This is due to your hard work. In March and April, you overcame a very difficult predicament.”
The plant’s manager, Masao Yoshida, said the situation had improved significantly, but warned against complacency.
From the data at the plant that I have seen, there is no doubt that the reactors have been stabilized,” said Yoshida. “But not extremely stabilized, so it is still dangerous to work here.”
He said that cold shutdown was possible because despite falling through the reactors’ pressure vessels, the melted fuel was still inside the containment vessels, where it is being cooled.
Yoshida recalled the horror of the early days of the crisis, saying he feared that some of his fellow workers would die in the disaster. The bodies of two men, presumed to have drowned, were found in early April.
The utility has conceded that it could take 30 years to safely remove melted fuel from the reactors and decommission the facility.
Late last month, a panel set up by Japan’s nuclear energy commission called on Tepco to begin moving the fuel rods within 10 years. The damage to Fukushima’s reactors is more difficult to repair than that sustained at Three Mile Island, where worker began removing fuel six years after an accident in 1979.
On Friday, reporters were shown around J-Village, a former sports training complex that has been turned into a base for the thousands of workers involved in the operation.
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The village’s 12 soccer fields have been turned into helipads, areas for emergency vehicles and heavy equipment, and decontamination centers. It is also being used to store 480,000 sets of contaminated protective gear that cannot be used again, Kyodo reported.
All workers coming off their daily shift must undergo radiation checks at the complex, located about just outside the exclusion zone.
Two tents on the site house 12 full-body radiation counters that identify if workers have suffered internal exposure. The devices can check 200 people a day, according to officials, who added that none had tested positive. The site is staffed by 400 people, including a doctor and two nurses.
Tepco officials said conditions for workers had improved since the early days of the crisis, when they had to sleep on the floor and eat canned food. Now, all of the workers sleep in prefabricated housing, eat in cafeterias and work fewer hours. The firm said it had also vastly improved decontamination and screening facilities.