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Pensioners prepared to risk it all to clean up nuclear plants

Japan’s nuclear crisis, ignited by a devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 11, continues to worry scientist. Now a group of Japanese pensions says they are prepared to brave the radiation and embark on a high-risk cleanup operation.


They’re in the twilight of they lives – and they’re prepared to risk it all to put an end to the disaster at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

A group of more than 200 Japanese pensioners, mostly former engineers and industrial workers, are willing to go into the stricken plant and stop the radioactive leaks.

“I’m 72 years old, and on average I probably have 13 to 15 years left to live," Yasuteru Yamada told BBC TV on May 31. "Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take 20 or 30 years or longer to develop. Therefore us older ones have less chance of getting cancer."

Yasuteru Yamada is quite sane – and yet he knows that the mission that he proposes is fraught with risk: the radiation levels at the Fukushima plant are highly dangerous.

The former engineer at Sumitomo Metal Industries, Japan’s biggest steel works, has decided that he cannot stand idly by in the face of Japan’s biggest catastrophe since the Second World War.

He wants to put his engineering experience to good use – and he believes that the younger generation should be spared the disastrous consequences of Japan’s nuclear disaster.

So for the past few weeks Mr Yamada has been using email and social networking tools like Twitter to reach out to other former engineers who are ready to put their lives on the line in the service of their country.

‘Skilled Veterans Corps’

So far there are more than 200 volunteers – a so-called “Skilled Veterans Corps” – who are prepared to risk everything.

The initiative is no laughing matter, says Japan expert Professor Claude Mayer of the Paris Sciences Po University.

“One must remember that the Japanese have a huge sense of duty and sacrifice inbuilt into their national subconscious,” he told FRANCE 24. “They have a strong sense of duty beyond themselves personally.

“It is difficult to describe in a few words. One has to look at the Japanese national history, the wars it has fought, the religions it has adopted, the deep and strong code of honour that has evolved over centuries.”

Mr Yamada is somewhat more pragmatic. The approach, he said, must be “logical” – everything must and can be done to avoid risk.

And he laughs off the BBC’s suggestion that his Skilled Veterans Corps are “kamikaze pensioners.”

“We are not kamikaze. The kamikaze were something strange, no risk management there. They were going to die. But we are going to come back. We have to work but never die.”

For now, the heroic optimism of the volunteer pensioners is not shared by the Japanese government.

Mr Yamada says he has been lobbying both Tepco, the company that runs the power plant, and the government. “It’s politically very sensitive,” he said.

And at the power plant things are going from bad to worse. Three months after the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, the damaged reactors have yet to cool.

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