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Outside the Frame: Rare chance to see inside Fukushima, Japan's crippled nuke plant

David Guttenfelder / AP

Workers in protective suits gather near their lockers inside the emergency operation center at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, Nov. 12. Members of the media were allowed into the plant on Saturday for the first time since the March 11 tsunami and earthquake triggered the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

Photographer David Guttenfelder writes:

Today was a very rare chance to see inside the grounds of Fukushima's Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. It was the first time that the media was allowed access to the site since March, when the earthquake and tsunami triggered explosions and the reactors began to melt down.

A group of about 50 or more journalists was allowed to go in Saturday. I was the only non-Japanese photographer. We had to put on white haz-mat protective suits, two pairs of gloves, double layers of thick white plastic booties over our shoes, a head cover and a full respirator mask. Officials covered my cameras with plastic bags. I wasn't going to be able to change the settings on my cameras, change the batteries and memory cards, or switch lenses once the bags were sealed shut.

We boarded two buses and drove past a police checkpoint and into the "exclusion zone"— a 20-kilometer-radius contaminated no-man's land surrounding the destroyed power plant. Everything looks like a ghost town inside the zone. Earthquake rubble still lies in piles. Vending machines sit idle. We saw a pachinko pinball parlor with its front wall caved in. Overgrown weeds and creeping grasses have begun to reclaim abandoned parking lots and sidewalks. Stray cows, dogs and cats still wandered around and crows picked through garbage. The radiation meters showed between 1 and 7 microsieverts here.

Guards in protective suits checked our buses and waved us through the gate of Dai-ichi. Almost immediately I could see the stacks and ravaged exterior of one of the units. From a distance we stopped the bus and photographed the plant. Japanese TV correspondents did their "stand-ups" wearing the full spacesuits from inside the bus. Then we drove remarkably close to the reactors.

The buses moved along a narrow street tightly squeezed between the outer wall of the building units and the sea. We were only about 20 yards from the plant wall. The place is devastated. Walls are sheared away. Overturned vehicles and twisted steel beams lie upside down in huge earthquake craters. Abandoned pump trucks, used in early efforts to cool the site, sit idle. Dozens of hoses snake across the ground and through open doors or ruptures in the walls. Everywhere, there are pools of water. Elsewhere on the grounds there were dozens of busy workers. But next to the reactors, there are no signs of life. The radiation meters showed 300 microsieverts even inside the bus.

It wasn't that easy to photogaph. We were not allowed to get out of the bus which kept moving. We probably had about 3 minutes in total to shoot while the bus rolled past, close to the plant. In fact, we were so close to the plant that my widest lens could only make a full frame of nothing but twisted debris.

We also visited an emergency operation center near the reactors. I think this place was actually more interesting than seeing the damaged reactor itself because it was here that I found the people. Inside was a giant planning room. On the walls were monitors showing live video feeds on flat screen TVs. Men in white suits and masks typed on computers and added figures on desk calculators. Workers rested on the floor against their lockers. Everyone looked a bit weary to me. 

I think everyone is wondering, "Who are these people who go to the plant each day to make a living and, on behalf of the country, to battle the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl?"  

Read more here.

David Guttenfelder / AP

The crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station is seen through a bus window in Okuma on Nov. 12. Japan took a group of journalists inside the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant for the first time, stepping up its efforts to prove to the world it is on top of the disaster.

David Guttenfelder / AP

Officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Japanese journalists pass by a newly built sea barricade next to the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station in Okuma, Japan, Nov. 12. Media allowed into Japan's tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant for the first time Saturday saw a striking scene of devastation: twisted and overturned vehicles, crumbling reactor buildings and piles of rubble virtually untouched since the wave struck more than eight months ago.

David Guttenfelder / AP

The crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station is seen through a bus window in Okuma, Japan, Nov. 12.

David Guttenfelder / AP

A deserted street inside the contaminated exclusion zone around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is seen from bus windows in Fukushima prefecture, Nov. 12. Conditions at Japan's wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant, devastated by a tsunami in March, were slowly improving to the point where a "cold shutdown" would be possible as planned, officials said on Saturday during a tour of the facility.

David Guttenfelder / AP

A worker carries his belongings as he walks among the temporary housing structures erected for workers at J-Village, a soccer training complex now serving as an operation base for those battling Japan's nuclear disaster, near Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima prefecture Nov. 11, eight months after the disaster.

David Guttenfelder / AP

A man dresses in a room where workers leave their clothing before putting on protective suits at J-Village, Nov. 11. Japan's lower house approved a 156 billion USD draft budget to finance post quake reconstruction and boost an economy hit by slow global growth and a strong yen.

David Guttenfelder / AP

A worker, left, steps from a radiation screening machine after removing and discarding his protective suit as he arrives at J-Village, Nov. 11.

David Guttenfelder / AP

Men sort and clean protective masks at J-Village, Nov. 11.

David Guttenfelder / AP

An employee of Tokyo Electric Power Co. looks at piles of used protective clothing that was worn by workers inside the contaminated "exclusion zone," and later will be placed inside containers at J-Village.