OKUMA, Japan (AP) Two reactor buildings once painted in a cheery sky blue loom over the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Their roofs are blasted away, their crumbled concrete walls reduced to steel frames.
In their shadow, plumbers, electricians and truck drivers, sometimes numbering in the thousands, go dutifully about their work, all clad from head to toe in white hazmat suits. Their job cleaning up the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl will take decades to complete.
Reporters, also in radiation suits, visited the ravaged facility Saturday for the first time since Japan's worst tsunami in centuries swamped the plant March 11, causing reactor explosions and meltdowns and turning hundreds of square miles of countryside into a no man's land.
Eight months later, the plant remains a shambles. Mangled trucks, flipped over by the power of the wave, still clutter its access roads. Rubble remains strewn where it fell. Pools of water cover parts of the once immaculate campus.
Tens of thousands of the plant's former neighbors may never be able to go home. And just as Hiroshima and Nagasaki become icons of the horrors of nuclear weapons, Fukushima has become the new rallying cry of the global anti-nuclear energy movement.
Yet this picture is one of progress, Japanese officials say. It has taken this long to make the plant stable enough to allow Saturday's tour, which included representatives of the Japanese and international media including The Associated Press. Officials expect to complete an early but important step toward cleaning up the accident by the end of the year.
"I think it's remarkable that we've come this far," Environment Minister Goshi Hosono, Japan's chief nuclear crisis response official, said before leading the tour. "The situation at the beginning was extremely severe. At least we can say we have overcome the worst."
The group was taken through the center of the facility, a once-neat row of reactor buildings that are now shells of shattered walls and steel frames. Journalists were then briefed inside the plant's emergency operations center, a spacious, bunker-like structure where it is safe to remove the heavy protective gear required outdoors.
Woefully unprepared for the wave that swept over its breakwater, the plant just 140 miles northeast of Tokyo was doomed almost from the start.
"During the first week of the accident, I thought several times that we were all going to die," plant chief Masao Yoshida said.
At the height of the crisis, all but a few dozen workers dubbed the "Fukushima 50" were evacuated. Officials boast that number is now up to as many as 3,000 a day, compared with the pre-crisis work force of 6,400.
Evidence of the tremendous man-hours already invested in the cleanup is piling up in the workers' staging area, on the edge of the 12-mile (20-kilometer) no-go zone around the plant. More than 480,000 sets of used protective gear which can be worn only once lie in crates or plastic bags at the complex, which before the tsunami was a training facility for national-level soccer teams.
Kazuo Okawa, 56, who worked at Fukushima for 20 years, was called back to join an emergency crew for several days in April. His team wore three layers of gloves, full-face masks, double-layer Tyvek protective coveralls, rubber boots with plastic covers and plastic head covers. They carried personal Geiger counters.
"Obviously, it was very dangerous at that time," he recalled during a recent visit to Tokyo. "Luckily, we got out without experiencing any life-threatening situations."
Workers like Okawa in Chernobyl they were called "liquidators" have restored the plant's supply of electricity, set up elaborate cooling and drainage systems, rebuilt crumbled walls and erected a huge tent to cover one of the worst-hit reactors, cutting the amount of radioactivity leaking into the surrounding environment.
Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs the plant, says it will achieve a "cold shutdown" by the end of the year a first step toward creating a stable enough environment for work to proceed on removing the reactors' nuclear fuel and closing the plant altogether.
But that is by no means the end of the story.
A preliminary government report released this month predicted it will take 30 years or more to safely decommission Fukushima Dai-ichi. Like Chernobyl, it will probably be encased in a concrete and steel "sarcophagus."