So far, about 9,000 workers have been involved in the four-month operation to stabilize the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, where three of six reactors experienced meltdown in the aftermath of the March 11 tsunami.
If Yasuteru Yamada gets his way, the Fukushima workforce of the future will include a band of pensioners calling themselves the skilled veterans corps.
This month the retired engineer for Sumitomo Metal Industries is expected to visit the plant with four colleagues to carry out inspections. They propose to help design a replacement for the destroyed reactor cooling system.
The 72-year-old will survey the damage and, pending final approval from the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), the plant operator, call on hundreds of registered volunteers, all over 60, with expertise in a range of disciplines.
In April, he and two former colleagues reached out to 2,500 potential volunteers by telephone and e-mail. Before long, their plea had been repeated on Twitter and via blogs and, for days, Yamada’s telephone did not stop ringing.
As of last week, 430 people had volunteered, according to the group’s Web site. The oldest is 82.
Goshi Hosono, a special adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, initially likened Yamada’s offer to a “suicide mission” and suggested his and his corps’ services would not be required.
Yamada, who helped build power plants as a Sumitomo Metal employee, insists that the skilled veterans corps should be allowed to replace younger plant workers who, over time, are more susceptible to developing cancer.
Unlike the young engineers currently exposing themselves to high levels of radiation at Fukushima Dai-ichi, Yamada, a cancer survivor, reckons he has, at best, about 15 years left to live.
“Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take 20 or 30 years to develop,” he told the BBC. “That means us older ones have less chance of getting cancer.”
Having benefited from the limitless supply of power nuclear gave Japan in the postwar years, Yamada believes his generation now has a moral duty to it help stabilize the stricken plant.
Yamada shuns inevitable comparisons with the kamikaze, the specialist pilots who flew suicide missions for imperial Japan during the second world war.
His team, Yamada said, would only enter the plant with guarantees of limited exposure to radiation, and with the support of the country’s nuclear authorities.
“The kamikaze were something strange, no risk management there,” he said. “They were going to die, but we are going to come back.”
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