Japanese retirees volunteer to work in stricken nuclear plant
They were two old friends catching up over coffee, retirees swapping stories and gasping at the unfolding nuclear nightmare at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
But instead of merely throwing their hands up over the disaster that shook the plant in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Nobuhiro Shiotani and Yasuteru Yamada, both 72-year-old scientists, decided they could do something to help.
They devised a plan that some have called heroic, others misguided and suicidal. They would enlist a small army of researchers and other skilled workers to come out of retirement to venture inside the radioactive plant and use their expertise to help stabilize its stricken reactors.
In early April, Yamada got on the phone to former colleagues and long-lost contacts. He wrote letters and emails, and joined Twitter to get the word out to 2,500 people. At last count, 400 men and women have signed up for the Skilled Veterans Corps: former electrical engineers, forklift operators, high-altitude and heavy construction workers, military special forces members, two cooks and even a singer who wants to help.
The youngest is 60, the oldest 78.
Many call the volunteers crazy, dismissing them as a Suicide Corps — an over-the-hill gang with a death wish. Others say that the effort should be left up to those who allowed the problem to occur — the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., known as Tepco. The group of skilled veterans, however, insists this is no pie-in-the-sky dream, but a plan based on real science, if not a bit of grim math.
They ask, why risk the health of the younger generation to perform such work in a perilous radioactive environment? Cells reproduce more slowly in the bodies of older people, they reason, so any cancer caused by absorbed radioactivity would take much longer to form.
Yamada says he’ll be dead from something else long before any radiation-caused cancer can kill him.
“Young workers who may reproduce a younger generation and are themselves more susceptible to the effects of radiation should not be engaged in such work,” said the retired environmental engineer and consultant. “This job is a call for senior citizens like me.”
Volunteer Kazuko Sasaki, 69, said that when she and her husband told their son of their decision to join up, he just shook his head and said, “It’s your life.”
Friends have questioned her decision. “They say I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to get cancer. It’s a horrible ordeal. And I tell them that I could get cancer anyway, even if I didn’t go.”
Yamada and Shiotani, a retired physicist and chemist, felt personally responsible for the catastrophe at the Fukushima plant.
Even though neither had ever been to Fukushima, it was their generation that had applied its know-how to build the facility in the late 1960s and 1970s. They had also benefited greatly from the nuclear power it generated — which provided the heat and light necessary for their laboratory work, warming the bottles they fed to their children. Many people their age, they say, remain strong advocates for the future of nuclear power in Japan.
“This nuclear reactor was the brainchild of our generation,” Shiotani said. “And we feel it’s our job to clean up the mess.”
The pair started a website for the Skilled Veterans Corps, which lays out its reasoning. Our generation, “in particular those of us who hailed the slogan that ‘Nuclear Power is Safe,’ should be the first to join,” it says. “This is our duty to the next generation and the one thereafter.”
Yamada and Shiotani have met with government and Tepco officials, who have given preliminary approval to enter the facility, which is off-limits to the public, to help design a replacement for the reactor cooling system that was knocked out by the tsunami. No date for entering the plant has yet been set.
In the coming weeks, the volunteers plan their first meeting to map out a strategy, and Yamada and Shiotani are continuing to talk with government and company officials about when they might go inside.
Government and Tepco officials did not respond to interview requests. At this point, officials are trying to enter the stricken reactors amid a hot radioactive environment to assess how to replace the plant’s cooling system.
Yamada says he’s nobody’s hero, just someone trying to preserve youth in a country where roughly one-quarter of the population is 60 and older, making Japan one of the oldest societies in the world.
Supporters say group members are perfecting the art of growing old fearlessly. Shiotani explained the venture in an email to his graduate advisor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he studied material sciences in the 1960s.
His mentor responded with applause. “I told him that it was a tremendous thing he’s doing, showing such loyalty to his nation in a time of need,” said professor emeritus Theodore Rowland.
Rowland, 84, said the project showed that older professionals can still contribute to society. “We can’t generalize. Some people … are slobbering by the time they’re 80,” he said. “But anybody who can prove they’re still a competent scientist can help if you ask them.”
Not everyone is so encouraging. When Shiotani told his 97-year-old mother of his plans, she remained silent and shuffled away on her walker, he recalled.
Despite a common goal, tensions exist among the group members. Many of the men do not want the dozen women who have signed up to take part, saying they’re too weak and will only get in the way.
Sasaki, a retired Czech language interpreter, will hear none of it. “At first they said my skills weren’t needed, but I kept badgering them,” she said. “It doesn’t take any particular skills to move aside irradiated debris. My biggest skill is the ability to live a long time.... I’m going.”
A half-pack-a-day smoker who survived intestinal cancer that struck eight years ago, Shiotani says he’s healthy enough to participate. Still, he and others will get health checkups.
A wiry man with oversized glasses, he said he didn’t know what to expect at the plant but pointed out: “In my career, I was an experimentalist. I faced difficulties and the unpredictable things that happened in experiments.”
In more downcast moments, though, he wonders if his band of graying volunteers will ever be allowed to set foot inside the nuclear plant.
“I don’t know if the government and the utility are just paying us lip service,” he said. “It’s typical of Japan: Even if you don’t want me, you nod your head and agree.”
Confident that she’ll eventually get inside the plant, Sasaki says she is ready for whatever happens.
“Death has become familiar,” she said. “Not that I want to die — I’m just no longer afraid of it.”
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