I toured the devastated Fukushima nuclear plant. This is what I saw.

November 7, 2013

The sixth reactor building at the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI NUCLEAR POWER PLANT, Japan -- On Thursday, I visited the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant for the first time, and it was a bit like seeing the movie after having read the book -- vivid images flooding every space that my imagination hadn’t yet filled.

The visit didn’t do much to change my thinking about the main problems at the plant. But it did give me a sense of what it’s like to walk the premises and to work there, in layers of suffocating protective gear. I also got a sense of what it’s like to eat lunches provided by the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco — in this case, white-bread sandwiches filled with a mayonnaise-meat ooze.

Tepco provided the tour Thursday to more than a dozen foreign journalists, and the first impression came on the bus ride to the facility. The plant is even more isolated than you'd expect. On the way there, you drive for miles through a recommended evacuation zone, an area of gutted car dealerships, abandoned homes and weeds high enough to obscure traffic signs. Starting about three miles from the plant, only authorized vehicles are allowed to enter. Polite policemen in face masks wave in Tepco vehicles, and for the rest of the drive, there are no human beings to be seen.

Soon after we arrived at the plant, we were escorted to a change room where we stripped down to our underwear and then dressed ourselves in Tepco-provided gear. First, gray and navy athletic gear that seemed suitable for yoga. Then socks. Then white gloves. Then a baggy white suit, followed by another layer of socks, two more sets of gloves, a cotton cap and plastic covers for our shoes. Last came the tight-fitting face mask, the sort that made us all look like nocturnal tree animals, with enormous eyes and extended honking noses. Similar equipment seems to be required for every employee at the plant, or at least the ones we saw. With the masks on, holding any kind of conversation is difficult. Because of that, workers need to know what they’re doing before they actually get there.

Seeing the nuclear plant firsthand, there’s no clear sign of chaos or trouble. Work is done mostly in silence. And some of the biggest problems — such as the leakage of contaminated water into the ocean — are happening out of sight. But cleanup from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami has happened on a need-to-fix basis. Some buildings are pristine. Others have been ravaged by the natural disasters and left to rot. In one area of the nuclear plant, an abandoned car is wedged between pieces of rubble, its windshield shattered. In another area, a set of picnic tables — presumably an old lunch spot for employees — is now covered with a rich red rust.

Tepco allowed us out of the tour bus at three places around the site. We spent five minutes looking at tanks used to store contaminated water. We walked inside the No. 4 reactor building. Lastly, we caught a glimpse of construction taking place along the coastal side of the facility. Dosimeters buzzed sporadically, detecting high radiation levels. But after two radiation checks on the way out — one for surface contamination, one for internal contamination — I was given a clean bill of health. The greatest physical damage might have come on the way home: Still hungry after lunch, we stopped for doughnuts.

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