By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Tokyo
Yasuteru Yamada said people from all walks of life were welcome to join the group
A group of more than 200 Japanese pensioners are volunteering to tackle the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power station.
The Skilled Veterans Corps, as they call themselves, is made up of retired engineers and other professionals, all over the age of 60. They say they should be facing the dangers of radiation, not the young. It was while watching the television news that Yasuteru Yamada decided it was time for his generation to stand up.
No longer could he be just an observer of the struggle to stabilise the Fukushima nuclear plant. The retired engineer is reporting back for duty at the age of 72, and he is organising a team of pensioners to go with him.
For weeks now Mr Yamada has been getting back in touch with old friends, sending out e-mails and even messages on Twitter. Volunteering to take the place of younger workers at the power station is not brave, Mr Yamada says, but logical.
Mr Yamada has been getting back in touch with old friends via e-mail and even messages on Twitter
“I am 72 and on average I probably have 13 to 15 years left to live,” he says. “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.”
Mr Yamada is lobbying the government hard for his volunteers to be allowed into the power station. The government has expressed gratitude for the offer but is cautious.
Certainly a couple of MPs are supporting Mr Yamada. “At this moment I can say that I am talking with many key government and Tepco people. But I am sorry I can’t say any more at this moment. It is on the way but it is a very, very sensitive issue politically,” he said.
We are not kamikaze… They were going to die – but we are going to come back ”
Certainly it is likely more workers will be needed.
The plant is still spewing radiation, nearly three months after an earthquake and tsunami knocked out its cooling systems, triggering explosions. Its operator, Tepco, has now confirmed three of the reactors probably suffered meltdowns. The plan is to bring the plant to a cold shutdown by January, although some experts believe that is over optimistic.
To cope with the disaster Japan has raised the radiation exposure limit for emergency workers from 100 millisieverts to 250 millisieverts. But Tepco announced this week two workers at Fukushima might have already been exposed to more.
Many of Mr Yamada’s veterans are retired engineers like him.
Michio Ito is keen to swap his apron for a radiation suit
Others are former power station workers, experts in factory design – and even a singer and two cooks – Mr Yamada says they will be useful to keep his team amused and fed.
Michio Ito used to be a primary school teacher but is spending his retirement helping out in a cafe that offers work experience to people with learning difficulties.
He is keen to swap his apron for a radiation suit. “I don’t think I’m particularly special,” he says. “Most Japanese have this feeling in their heart. The question is whether you step forward, or you stay behind and watch. “To take that step you need a lot of guts, but I hope it will be a great experience. Most Japanese want to help out any way they can.”
Mr Yamada has already tried on his old overalls for size. He says he is as fit as ever – with a lifetime of experience to bring to the task. And he laughs off suggestions his proposed team is comparable to the kamikaze pilots who flew suicide missions in World War II. “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.”