FUKUSHIMA, Japan – At the edge of a no man's land around Japan's tsunami-slammed reactor complex lies a grassy athlete's village that now serves as base camp for an army of workers battling the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
In regular rotation, groups are bused out to three-day shifts of punishing work at the water-logged, radiation-spewing complex. They stop only to gulp canned food and steal a nap on the floor, before they can return to J-Village, an oasis on the outskirts of an evacuated wasteland.
To recognize the dedication of the hundreds of workers — some of whom might be risking their lives — Prime Minister Naoto Kan will visit J-Village on Saturday, the second time that he has ventured into the nuclear crisis zone since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami spawned the disaster.
Shifts at the troubled Fukushima Dai-ichi plant have been grueling.
"They sleep on the floor, inside a conference room, or even in the hallway or in front of a bathroom," Kazuma Yokota, an official at Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told a news conference this week.
"That's where they sleep, with only one blanket each to wrap themselves around," he said.
Yokota said the pace has been so hectic that some workers lack clean underwear, and that officials are working to bring more supplies to them.
The troubles at the Fukushima plant have eclipsed the 1979 crisis at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, when a partial meltdown raised fears of widespread radiation release. But it is still well short of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which killed at least 31 people with radiation sickness and spewed radiation across much of the northern hemisphere.
Work to avoid a full meltdown at Fukushima has been a laborious and complex process to restore the electrical circuitry and water-pumping systems that can keep the plant's fuel rods in cool storage.
Workers wear full-body protective gear and must pull back whenever a dosimeter alarm goes off, indicating unsafe radiation. If the exposure is too high, workers are pulled out completely and sent home.
After three days on, they get three days off at the base camp set up by plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. amid the soccer fields and wooded walkways of J-Village.
The former sports complex, largely spared damage in the tsunami, previously was a training ground for Japan's most elite athletes while also serving as a base for local teams — even the TEPCO women's soccer squad used to play there.
"There are places to sleep, eat, shower and relax," TEPCO spokesman Hirota Oyama said. "It isn't perfect, but it does provide a place for the workers to pull back and get some rest before they have to go back in."
"They can eat fresh vegetables," he said. "That is something they can't do on the nuclear site."
TEPCO says the camp has thorough monitoring of radioactivity and facilities for workers to wash any radiation from their clothes and bodies.
But it has released little information about the condition of the workers, many of whom are retired nuclear facility employees called back to work to deal with the crisis.
The company has generally kept them away from the media and discouraged interviews, though some have appeared to express themselves through blogs and other social media.
J-Village is behind police roadblocks and off-limits to anyone but the small circle of officials directly involved in the crisis. It is right on the edge of the 12-mile (20-kilometer) exclusion zone set up around the reactor site.
TEPCO officials told The Associated Press that there have been no significant cases of radiation exposure high enough to cause an immediate health risk to any of the workers screened at J-Village. They said two workers who were hurt while working on the plant had injuries that are not life-threatening, but have declined to provide further details.
Sumio Imoto, a spokesman for Tokyo Energy & Systems, Inc., one of the main subcontractors providing emergency labor on the plant, said its workers are being taken care of and are not taking excessive risks. "The safety of our employees is our primary concern," he said.
Maintaining the morale of the workers is a major task.
Kan's visit Saturday comes after an earlier visit by the defense minister, and the government has saluted the workers' effort in recent days.
"I humbly bow to the workers and officials who are engaged in various difficult work at the frontline of the nuclear plant," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Tuesday.