OKUMA, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – At the facility on the Pacific Coast, people in casual clothes stroll under cherry trees in full bloom.
Hot meals made with local ingredients are served for ¥380 at a cafeteria. Cold drinks, snacks and sweets are available at a convenience store.
This scene is not unfolding at a popular tourist site, but at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which was rocked by a magnitude-9 earthquake and the ensuing tsunami on March 11, 2011.
Accompanied by officials from Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., a group of reporters was given access to the power station earlier this month.
Six years have passed since the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Efforts to remove radioactive debris and to cover tainted soil with materials like mortar have helped decrease the radiation at the plant, allowing workers to wear regular uniforms at about 95 percent of the site.
Tainted water has been moved to more secure welded tanks, replacing weaker ones made of steel sheets and bolts, reducing leaks.
Visitors can overlook the four reactor buildings from a hill about 80 meters from the facility, where core meltdowns hit reactors 1, 2 and 3. Hydrogen explosions heavily damaged the buildings for units 1, 3 and 4, which have since received new facades.
On the hill, the radiation in the air was 150 microsieverts per hour, less than the amount received during a round-trip flight between Tokyo and New York. Tepco says there is no health hazard here as long as you wear masks and helmets and keep your stay short. Workers once needed to change into tightly woven clothing at the J-Village soccer training center about 20 km away before entering the Fukushima complex. But that burden has been lifted.
About 7,000 workers — 6,000 from construction, electronics and machinery companies and 1,000 from Tepco — work at the power station to deal with the aftermath of the meltdown and decommission the reactors.
“Our near-term goal is to create a place where they can work without worries,” said Daisuke Hirose, a spokesman for Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 Decontamination & Decommissioning Engineering Co.
There are now 400 cherry trees at the facility. Before the disaster, there were 1,200, and local residents were invited to enjoy cherry blossoms every spring, Hirose said. Now, workers walk with smiles under a tunnel of trees, greeting passers-by.
In May 2015, a nine-story rest house with meeting spaces and shower rooms opened. A convenience store was added last year.
At a 200-seat cafeteria, hot meals made with Fukushima produce are delivered from a central kitchen in the town of Okuma, about 9 km from the plant.
“I used to eat cold rice balls,” a worker on a lunch break said. “Hot meals make me happy and motivate me to work.”
The plant, which stands on a 3.5-sq.-km site about 230 km northeast of Tokyo, started up in 1971.
Since the radiation has dropped sharply at the facility, about 10,000 people per year, including journalists from the United States, Europe and Asian countries, have visited. Last year, high school students dropped by.
After the two-hour tour, a dosimeter carried by a reporter showed she was exposed to only 40 microsieverts, less than the amount from a chest X-ray.
Although the working environment has certainly improved, the fate of the plant is far from clear.
Decommissioning the crippled reactors is expected to take 30 to 40 years. The utility is aiming to begin removing fuel debris from one reactor by the end of 2021, but so far it has failed to even ascertain the condition inside the reactors.
A lot of rubble remains in many of the buildings on the seaside, keeping alive fears of a quake-tsunami catastrophe like the one that struck six years ago.
A frozen underground wall has seen only limited success in preventing groundwater from flowing into the reactor and turbine buildings, regulators have said, acknowledging that the facility is still a perpetual generator of tainted water.
Tepco is also struggling to dispose of tainted waste, such as used protective garments, gloves and socks. It has burned 1,500 tons of such waste while monitoring the radiation in the smoke. It still had 70,000 cu. meters of garbage as of the end of February.
“Through legislation, we are prohibited from taking radioactive contaminated garbage outside the facility even after we incinerate it. We have to continue the fight against garbage and ash,” Hirose said.
Public confidence in Tepco has been shaky in the wake of the meltdowns, and even now, nearly 80,000 residents are unable to return to their homes near the plant.
“We have caused it,” Hirose said. “We have to make every effort to create a place to which people want to return. Nobody wants to live where the safety and security of workers are not ensured.”