Japanese elderly volunteer for nuclear clean-up

It could take five years to clear up after Japan’s earthquake and nuclear disaster. But a group of old age pensioners is inspiring others by volunteering to work in the crippled power plant.

They call themselves the Skilled Veterans Corps and see themselves as patriots: an army of elderly Japanese volunteers wants to help make the disabled nuclear reactors at the Fukushima power plant safe.

When Japan suffered its triple disaster in March – earthquake, tsunami, then a meltdown inside Fukushima, which had been built on the quake fault line – the world looked on in horror. Terrified survivors picked their way out of flattened houses and office blocks, and the population of the region was evacuated to other parts of the country to escape radiation leaks. 22,000 died or went missing and $211 billion of damage was caused.

But the dignified way in which ordinary Japanese dealt with their grief deeply impressed international observers.

Now, with the clean-up at the crippled nuclear plant still challenging and regional reconstruction estimated to take another five years, this unlikely band of national heroes has stepped forward to help.

The veterans, led by a couple of experienced engineers, argue that young people, particularly those who are yet to bear children, should be protected from working where radiation will risk their health and fertility. So they have volunteered to install a new cooling system at Fukushima to keep the reactors safe.

‘Our generation who has, consciously or unconsciously, approved the construction of the Fukushima nuclear power plants and enjoyed the benefits of the vast supply of electricity generated, in particular those of us who hailed the slogan that "Nuclear Power is Safe" should be the first to join the Skilled Veteran Corps to install or repair the cooling system. This is the duty of our generation to the next generation and the one thereafter.’

That’s the explanation on the blog set up by Yastel Yamada, 72, which is so popular that it is now translated into 12 languages.

And there’s a real need for the volunteers because Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which owns the reactors, needs around 3,000 workers at the problem site. Some are already absorbing more radiation than legally allowed; others have suffered from the heat; many are failing to turn up for work.

Brave or foolish?

At first, politicians were dismissive of Mr Yamada’s enthusiasm, saying there was no need for a ‘suicide corps’. But the offer of help has attracted much support and admiration, though Tepco has not yet accepted.

Should they be more grateful for individuals with a lifetime’s experience as engineers and scientists who are willing to take personal risks to help compatriots? Or are they right to worry that the old people will get sick?

You Decide

  1. One newspaper called the veterans ‘Kamikaze dodderers’. Do you think they could help or will they get in the way?
  2. What have you learned about Japan and the Japanese by watching or reading about March’s disaster and its aftermath?

Activities

  1. Write a letter on behalf of Tepco, thanking the veterans and either accepting or rejecting their help, with arguments in support of your decision.
  2. Some of the volunteers experienced radiation when the nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima at the end of WWII. Research the effects of the bombing on the lives and health of the local population and make a presentation to the class.

Some People Say...

“Young people’s health is worth more than old people’s.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Wow, these oldies are bold!
These volunteers are providing some inspiration while the politicians are struggling.
How so?
Well, the politician in charge of the reconstruction plan, Makoto Iokibe, says that ‘Japan has a history of planting the seeds of rebirth at the times of greatest national difficulty, and that’s what we have to do this time as well.’ But his plan, published this week, will be difficult to implement because there are arguments about how to pay for it.
What’s in the reconstruction plan?
Mr Iokibe wants to rehouse people safely on higher ground or raise the land for rebuilding; restart farming, fishing and tourism and make the area a testbed for renewable technologies.

Word Watch

Radiation
Nuclear materials release energy in the form of radiation, which can seriously damage human health in the short and long term.
Fertility
The ability to reproduce, to successfully produce healthy offspring.
Cooling system
It is impossible to turn off the fuel in a nuclear power plant. So even when a plant has stopped working, like at Fukushima, the fuel rods still have to be continuously cooled.
Suicide corps
This is a reference to the Japanese tradition of extreme military self-sacrifice. For example the Kamikaze pilots who killed themselves by dive-bombing enemy shipping.
Compatriots
Fellow countrymen and women.
Renewable technology
Ways of producing ‘green’ energy, from sources such as wind or wave power, which is not used up but continuously available.

Subjects

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