June 1, 2011

JAPAN: Seniors volunteer for Fukushima 'suicide corps'

TOKYO / CNN International / Asia-Pacific / June 1, 2011

Skilled Veterans Corps of 250 will help end the crisis at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

By Kyung Lah (CNN)

Elderly volunteers for nuclear crisis

Up a narrow flight of stairs in a modest, non-descript office building, three retirees sit in a cramped room, hunched over their computers and mobile phones. They look like the planning committee for a neighborhood senior breakfast, not the leaders of a 250-member team attempting to defuse one of the worst nuclear meltdowns in history.

But that's exactly what 72-year-old Yasuteru Yamada (right) hopes his seniors group, the Skilled Veterans Corps, will do: help end the crisis at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

The group, consisting only of retirees age 60 and up, says it is uniquely poised to work at the radiation-contaminated plant, as the cells of an older person's body divide more slowly than a younger individual.

Holes feared in two reactors

"We have to work instead of them," says Yamada, referring to the estimated 1,000 workers currently at the nuclear plant. "Elders have less sensitivity to radiation. Therefore, we have to work."

TEPCO admits to more possible meltdowns Yamada is a former engineer for Sumitomo Metal Industries Ltd. and offers decades of experience, he says. A cancer survivor, Yamada says he values his life but wants to make a difference in the years he has left.

Yamada pauses as his mobile phone rings. He pops out his hearing aids to answer. Another call from the news media, he says, as he excuses himself briefly.

Reporters from around the globe have called daily since Yamada announced the existence of his group.

They, including this reporter, are calling because of what the prime minister's special adviser to the nuclear crisis publicly dubbed them, the "suicide corps." Goshi Hosono, at a news conference last week, told reporters that while the government was grateful for the offer, there is no immediate need for the elderly volunteers.

Masaaki Takahashi, 65, bristles at the name Hosono gave his team. "I want them to stop calling us the 'suicide corps' or kamikazes," he says. "We're doing nothing special. I simply think I have to do something and I can't allow just young people to do this."

Takahashi is currently tasked with logging the names of donors and volunteers. He says there are more than 900 donors and 250 able-bodied seniors who want to don the white radiation suits and enter the grounds of the plant.

The reasons driving their desire to volunteer vary, according to the group, but none include a wish to die.

Kazuko Sasaki, 69, the co-founder of the group, says she has a number of personal reasons why she wants to work at the plant.

"My generation, the old generation, promoted the nuclear plants. If we don't take responsibility, who will?"

But Sasaki is also pragmatic about the risks an older person is willing to take versus someone younger.

"When we were younger, we never thought of death. But death becomes familiar as we get older. "We have a feeling that death is waiting for us. This doesn't mean I want to die. But we become less afraid of death, as we get older." Sasaki also says a 30-year old exposed to radiation at the crippled plant might get cancer at 35 or 40. At her age, she'd be 75 or 80, and might have gotten cancer anyway, she says.

The owner of the nuclear plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), tells CNN it is thankful for the offer from the seniors group. But it says they currently have enough workers to control the crisis. But if Hikaru Tagawa is any indication, the plant is having trouble luring employees to the facility. Tagawa is a former temporary worker at Fukushima who lived just a few miles away, an area that is now a mandatory evacuation zone.

When CNN met Tagawa, he was living at an evacuation center near Tokyo.

"Nothing can make me go back to work there," he says, as his young daughter played nearby. He points out he has two young children and calls the levels of radiation "too dangerous."

Whether the concerns of a worker shortage or the public arguments from the seniors, the same government point man, who called the group a "suicide corps" now appears to be less resistant to the idea.

"I met the leader of the group and we've started a discussion, looking for any possible, practical next step," Hosono said in a news conference Monday.

Yamada also says he has met with Hosono. But he believes his group will be working at the plant soon. The reason is simple, he says. "They need us."

© 2011 Cable News Network