TOKYO, Japan, June 1, 2011 — -- Yasuteru Yamada cringes at any comparison to the kamikaze, pilots who flew suicide missions during World War II.
The retired engineer has rallied more than 200 aging workers who have volunteered to tackle the nuclear crises at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant. But he says, this is no suicide mission.
"We don't want to die," says the 72-year old, a former engineer for Sumitomo Metal Industries Ltd. "We just want to stabilize the nuclear plant, nothing more."
The team of volunteers call themselves the Skilled Veteran Corps. The group is made up of former engineers, doctors, cooks, even singers. The common thread is that they are all over the age of 60.
Yamada says he decided to establish the group, shortly after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami shut down cooling systems at Fukushima's reactors in March, triggering the world's worst nuclear crises since Chernobyl. Yamada watched on television, as younger workers dressed in hazmat suits, braved radiation fears to bring the damaged reactors under control.
Nearly three months after the accident, the reactors continue to spew radiation into the air, while contaminated water leaks into the ocean.
Yamada worries about the health of current Fukushima workers, and says the nuclear burden should be tasked to an older generation that has "consciously or unconsciously" supported the plant, and reaped the benefits of the electricity it's generated. He often jokes that he has just 15 years to live, not long enough for cancer – a common side-effect of radiation exposure – to develop.
The call to duty has created a unique bond among the retired generation. Yamada says his volunteers aren't tech savvy, and prefer to communicate by fax or telephone instead of e-mail.
"Some of these talks go on for an hour or more," he laughs.
Childhood friend Nobuhiro Shiotani is a retired material scientist. Like most volunteers, the 72-year-old has no experience working at a nuclear power plant, but he says he understands crisis management. He is also driven by a sense of responsibility.
"We should save our younger generation," Shiotani said. "I just want to extinguish the fire."
The Skilled Veteran Corps's cause, has piqued the interest of plant operator Tokyo Electric, commonly known as TEPCO, and Japanese politicians. In talks with TEPCO, Yamada says the utility has expressed enthusiasm in teaming up, though neither has a "concrete idea on how we can work together."
At a press conference this week, Goshi Hosono, special advisor to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, acknowledged meeting with the group, and said the two sides "had started a discussion, looking for any possible, practical next step."
The need for workers is expected to increase. TEPCO has already said the company is unlikely to meet its self-imposed deadline of bringing the reactors to a cold-shutdown by the end of the year.
Nearly three months after the nuclear crises began, there is increasing concern the company has not done enough to protect workers from radiation risks. On Monday, TEPCO announced two Fukushima employees had been exposed to more than 250 millisieverts of radiation, the legal limit set by the government. That prompted the health ministry to call on TEPCO to step up safety efforts at the plant.
All of this has made working at Fukushima a tough sell, making Yamada's group a rarity. So far, they've signed up 247 volunteers and raised more than $30,000 to support their efforts.
"Some are quite curious about us, some are quite friendly, and some are encouraging us," Shiotani said.