REPORTING FROM TOKYO — The scene is post-apocalyptic: a scattering of failed buildings squatting in the sunlit silence, their iron frames bent and twisted, having barely withstood the explosions that rocked the nuclear power plant in the days after the March 11 earthquake.
For the first time since the disaster, journalists were allowed this weekend to take a supervised visit to the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant, which suffered meltdowns and blasts after a towering quake-triggered tsunami knocked out its cooling system, and hydrogen built up inside its reactor housing.
Reporters, photographers and cameramen dressed in protective gear, respirators and radiation deflectors offered eyewitness detail of an atomic factory scene that still reeked of destruction eight months after the catastrophe.
The Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, hosted the media entourage in part to demonstrate that progress was being made in stabilizing the facility, where the non-nuclear explosions and leaks of dangerous radioactivity led to the possibly permanent evacuation of 80,000 residents from nearby communities.
Plant general manager Masao Yoshida told reporters that the facility had "definitely been stabilized," the Japan Times reported. He said temperatures at the bottom of pressure vessels in the three worst-hit reactor units have been kept below 100 degrees Celsius, which he said meant that contaminated coolant water is no longer boiling and releasing large amounts of radiation, the newspaper reported.
In the past, such statements have been greeted with derision. TEPCO and Japanese government officials have faced withering criticism for their failure to release timely and accurate information about the spread of radioactive isotopes that have invaded Japan’s water, ground and air.
An independent study released this fall, for instance, estimated that the amount of radiation spewed into the atmosphere by the Fukushima blasts was more than twice that reported by utility and government officials.
Experts greeted Yoshida’s most recent claims with suspicion, saying that ad-hoc cooling systems set up to prevent nuclear fission in the reactor cores must continue to work or more catastrophes could follow. One scientist estimated that the reactors need to be cooled with water for at least a decade before the radioactive substances inside begin to decay and weaken.
They said a large aftershock could spell doom at the plant.
Utility engineers who have established the improvised cooling system say they have also set up a system to decontaminate radioactive water from the process. Nitrogen injections at the four damaged reactors are also designed to prevent more explosions.
The plant will eventually be encased in concrete as a safety precaution, engineers say.
Meanwhile, each day, more than 3,000 workers –- 1,500 on weekends -– scramble to shore up the defenses at the plant.
Utility officials, who in the past have denied media requests to visit the plant, suggested that the reporters’ presence was a sign of progress.
"If this were not the case," the Japan Times quoted Yoshida as saying, "I would refuse to allow thousands of workers to come to the plant and work here."
But the plant grounds remained chilling. One reporter described broken windows at many buildings and said vehicles swept up by the tsunami waves still lay wrecked where the water left them. Girders were snapped like toothpicks and the concrete tops of many buildings were blown off. Construction cranes loomed over everything.
Officials said they were spending their time and resources repairing critical facilities.
Down the road from the plant, where the utility has turned a former sports training facility into a changing area for workers, a large clock looms over a stadium that once served as a practice field.
The clock face is frozen at 2:46 p.m., the moment the earthquake struck northeast Japan on March 11, cutting electricity at the facility and the power plant 12 miles away.
— John M. Glionna
Photo: Japanese journalists and Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials view the crippled nuclear plant from bus windows. Credit: David Guttenfelder / Pool