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Published: Sunday, 7/3/2011

Older Japanese professionals offer to help tackle nation's nuclear crisis

NEW YORK TIMES
Retiree Yasuteru Yamada, 72, and a longtime friend have formed the Skilled Veterans Corps. Retiree Yasuteru Yamada, 72, and a longtime friend have formed the Skilled Veterans Corps.
NEW YORK TIMES Enlarge

TOKYO -- By any measure, the thousands of people toiling to cool the crippled nuclear reactors in Fukushima are engaged in jobs considered dirty, difficult, and dangerous.

Seemingly against logic, Yasuteru Yamada, 72, is eager for the chance to take part. After seeing hundreds of younger men on television struggle to control the damage at the Daiichi power plant, Mr. Yamada struck on an idea: Recruit other older engineers and other specialists to help tame the rogue reactors.

Not only do they have some of the skills needed, but because of their advanced age, they are at less risk of getting cancer and other diseases that develop slowly as a result of exposure to high levels of radiation. Their volunteering would spare younger Japanese from dangers that could leave them childless, or worse.

"We have to contain this accident, and for that, someone should do the work," said Mr. Yamada, a retired plant engineer who had worked for Sumitomo Metal Industries. "It would benefit society if the older generation took the job because we will get less damage from working there."

In early April, weeks after the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck, he and Nobuhiro Shiotani, a childhood friend who is also an engineer, formed the Skilled Veterans Corps. They sent out thousands of emails and letters and even set up a Twitter account. On his blog, bouhatsusoshi.jp/english, Mr. Yamada called on people over age 60 who have "the physical strength and experience to bear the burden of this front-line work."

The response was instant. About 400 people have volunteered. Some 1,200 others have offered support, while donations have topped 4.3 million yen, or $54,000.

Although Mr. Yamada, a soft-spoken cancer survivor, started with a simple goal, he has triggered a much wider debate about the role of the elderly in Japan, the meaning of volunteerism, and the growing reality that Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the reactors, will face an increasingly difficult time recruiting workers.

More than 3,000 workers, many of them poorly paid part-timers, are at the Daiichi site. Several have suffered heat stroke, and nine have absorbed more than their legal limit of radiation. Dozens have stopped showing up.

Mr. Yamada and his group have been described as selfless patriots, mindless kooks willing to throw themselves in harm's way, or pensioners with too much leisure time. The descriptions miss the point, according to Mr. Shiotani.

"Nuclear power plants are the brainchild of scientists and engineers," he said. "They created this mess, and they have to fix it."

In conditions this dangerous, wanting to help and being allowed to help are different things. Some lawmakers initially scoffed at the volunteers, including Goshi Hosono, an aide to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who told reporters last month that the work in Fukushima did not yet require a "suicide corps."

"It is very precious that they sacrifice their lives and volunteer to resolve this situation," Mr. Hosono later explained. But "they are at a certain age, so we don't want them to get sick after working in such a dangerous environment."

Mr. Yamada and his team are applying to become a nonprofit group and awaiting approval of their application to visit the Daiichi plant.

Mr. Yamada and Mr. Shiotani say the hardest part of their jobs may be dealing with officials at Tokyo Electric Power, or Tepco, as it is known. As engineers, they understand that their counterparts likely will have bruised egos, given the scale of the damage. But unlike high-paid consultants, the Skilled Veterans Corps has nothing to sell but their ideas and hard work. As volunteers, they do not have a conflict of interest and can speak openly, they say. Still, Mr. Yamada and Mr. Shiotani recognize that they must be humble.

Yoshimi Hitotsugi, a spokesman for Tepco, said that the company is "highly appreciative" of the offers of help, but that it is still deciding what the volunteers are capable of doing and how to ensure their safety.


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