OKUMA, Fukushima Pref. — Wearing a full-face mask and white protective suit, Yoshihiko Noda visited the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant Saturday, becoming the first politician to inspect the central control room and the first prime minister to enter one of the four wrecked reactor buildings.
Noda also visited the nearby base camp for plant employees and met eight of the "Fukushima 50" — the heroic workers who stayed at the plant at the height of the nuclear crisis and barely averted a catastrophic disaster that could have contaminated much of eastern Japan, including Tokyo.
"Thanks to your dedication, we have Japan as it is today," Noda told the eight men at J-Village, a sports facility now used as a base camp for about 3,000 plant workers who travel to the Fukushima plant every day.
Among the eight were Masatoshi Fukura and Atsufumi Yoshizawa, both 54. Fukura was leader of the operations team for units 1 to 4 of the crippled power station, while Yoshizawa headed the team for units 5 and 6. The remaining six workers declined to be identified.
"First, I'd like to apologize to the people" of Japan for failing to prevent the nuclear accident, Yoshizawa said at the outset of the meeting.
Each of the eight men then briefly talked about their appalling experiences at the No. 1 complex, which saw three of its six reactors melt down following the Great East Japan Earthquake, leading to a massive release of radioactive materials into the environment.
"The (power generators) were knocked out by water from the tsunami. I thought it was all over," said one of the plant workers. "I thought, 'This is it; this is the end of it all.' "