When former engineer Yasuteru Yamada put out the call for elderly volunteers to help tame the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, he got responses from about 300 people, whose average age is in their late 60s. The oldest applicant is 82.
Now Yamada's corps of elderly volunteers, dubbed a "suicide corps," is expected to get governmental approval for its quest to stabilize the crippled nuclear power plant.
In a meeting on June 6, industry minister Banri Kaieda told Yamada: "We want to make preparations so that you can work on the site before your enthusiasm burns out."
An aide to Kaieda also said the minister told Yamada that he wants to support his efforts.
Yamada, 72, who worked for Sumitomo Metal Industries Ltd., has solicited volunteers aged 60 or older, saying their age means the long-term adverse effects from radioactivity will be minimal.
Yamada feels that the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant's operator, are running short of hands because government officials had not previously taken his offer seriously.
At a news conference, Goshi Hosono, special adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan on the nuclear crisis, said, "The basic rule is to establish a work process that does not require such a 'suicide corps.' "
He also said it will be difficult unless they have experience in working in nuclear power plants.
Government and TEPCO officials, however, requested a meeting with Yamada in May. Yamada met with Hosono and Kazuhiko Yamashita, general manager of TEPCO's Nuclear Asset Management Department, on May 26.
Hosono and Yamashita said they want to accept the volunteers at the plant and asked Yamada to present a list of qualifications and licenses held by the applicants.
Currently, about 2,000 to 2,500 employees of TEPCO and other companies are working at the plant.
But the same workers cannot continue to work for many hours because the government only allows a maximum accumulated exposure of 250 millisieverts.
Some workers have dropped out due to the severe working conditions, and it is not easy to find replacements with a strong sense of mission.
Still, it remains unclear whether elderly volunteers will be able to demonstrate their mettle.
On June 5, two workers in their 40s, wearing protective clothing and full face masks, were taken to the hospital after complaining of symptoms of dehydration at the plant.
Nine others previously suffered heatstrokes.
Still, those setbacks have apparently not fazed Yamada, who came up with the idea of a Skilled Veterans Corps after watching explosions at the plant on TV.
In e-mails and letters sent to about 2,500 people in the same age group in early April, Yamada said: "The retirees who have accumulated the capability, while suffering the least damage from radioactive exposure, can summon strength not to leave a negative legacy for future generations."
The message was sent to many people and was introduced on blogs. Yamada's home was flooded with phone calls for some time.
Yamada, who was a leader of the 1960 student movements at the University of Tokyo, was reluctant to organize the volunteers into a formal group.
But he is planning to apply for the official status of a nonprofit organization because it would help when signing a contract with the government and other parties.
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