Embracing Duty

When most of us reach retirement age, we plan to retire. Play some golf, visit friends and family, maybe do some part time work or volunteering. Not too many people think of retirement as the time to suit up and go in to a nuclear plant to clean up after a catastrophe, yet that is exactly what a group of elderly Japanese is doing.

The Skilled Veterans Corps is a group of approximately 250 volunteers, all retirees who are at least 60 years old. Led by a former engineer, these volunteers are preparing to help in any way that Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) will accept. Currently, TEPCO insists that they have enough staff to defuse the reactor without volunteers, but the number of evacuated employees not returning to work suggests otherwise.

The Japanese press has taken to calling the group the “Suicide Corps” after the special adviser to the nuclear crisis referred to the group that way in a press conference. The Skilled Veterans Corps volunteers take issue with this name. They say that the purpose of their actions is not an attempt at suicide, or a throwback to kamikaze warriors, but a common sense approach to the problem. The group’s founder, Yasuteru Yamada, explains that the cells in an elderly person’s body divide at half the speed of a younger person’s, which means that any cancer caused by radiation would take twice as long to develop.

Group co-founder Kazuko Sasaki brings a different perspective to why this group is the right group to take on the problems caused by a contaminated nuclear plant. “My generation, the old generation, promoted the nuclear plants. If we don’t take responsibility, who will?” Masaaki Takahashi, the group member in charge of logging all donors and volunteers, gives a clear, almost simplistic reason for why he joined the group. “We’re doing nothing special. I simply think I have to do something and I can’t allow just young people to do this.”

At the moment, TEPCO is beginning conversations with the Skilled Veterans Corps. TEPCO is not eager to send a legion of senior citizens in to a contaminated nuclear power plant, but may overcome that and allow the group to participate in cleaning up the plant. Why?

“They need us.”

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