ROCK DOC - Japanese seniors define heroism, sacrifice in nuke cleanup

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[Yasuteru Yamada, co-founder of the Skilled Veterans Corps, explains why he helped to establish the organization. The group consists of retirees with various fields of expertise who are willing to aid ongoing work to stabilize the Fukushima nuclear plant. They are currently in a state of limbo waiting for permission from Tepco and the Japanese government.

Occasionally I'm guilty of just a tiny bit of cynicism about people and their motivations. And sometimes I grow weary of news reports about the nasty behaviors of which some folks are capable.

But any and all residue of my negativity evaporated instantly when I read of a cadre of truly courageous volunteers in Japan.

The Japanese who affected me so strongly are retirement-age citizens who are offering to help with the Fukushima clean up. They are doing so, they say, because their lives are already mainly in the past and they therefore have less to lose from radiation exposure from the tsunami-damaged nuclear plant than younger workers.

It's true that the older we get the less we have to lose. But it's also a commonplace fact that older people tend to get quite conservative about risk-taking. There's some truth behind the stereotype that 19-year olds risk everything driving at 85 miles an hour or volunteering for the Marine Corps during a war. In contrast, a lot of 69-year olds tend to think much more about preserving their lives, doing cautious things like buckling their seat belts and eating vegetables.

The story from Japan is a bit of a contrast to what we might expect, and it's an inspiring tale. The Japanese volunteers are retirees who want to replace younger people working on the enormous -- and enormously complex -- job of decontaminating the Fukushima power plant and the area around it. More than 500 senior citizens have organized themselves into what they term the Skilled Veterans Corps for Fukushima.

A news report I picked up via National Public Radio quotes 72-year old grandmother Kazuko Sasaki saying: "My generation built these nuclear plants. So we have to take responsibility for them. We can't dump this on the next generation."

My maternal grandmother was a pretty tough bird. I can imagine she might have taken exactly that attitude. But I'm still impressed with the Japanese who are now volunteering to work in and around the stricken nuclear plant.

The leader of the Skilled Veterans Corps is a 72-year old man named Yasuteru Yamada. He is a retired engineer. He rejects the notion that he and the other volunteers are courageous. He simply says it makes sense for people whose lives are largely in the past to do all the work they can in and around the radioactive plant.

Yamada is realistic that there are a number of things retirees cannot do.

"We won't completely replace younger workers," he is quoted as saying. "But for work that doesn't require brute strength, we will fill in, where radiation is especially high."

Some of the volunteers in the corps are retired nuclear workers, others are forklift operators or have softer skills. They have raised more than $100,000 for their effort. Despite their apparent readiness to serve, Tokyo Electric Power and the government have not yet taken up the volunteers on their offer to work.

Still, the volunteers have now been able to visit the site. Out of that, they submitted a proposal about what they could do in and near the power-plant.

While younger volunteers in other contexts might be greatly discouraged about a delay in starting to serve, the retirees sound more philosophical about the matter. They believe the radiation problem is one that will go on for many years and that, in time, the government and the power company will take them up on their offer to help.

It's impressive to me both what the volunteers are ready to do and how they have approached the authorities about their availability. I hope I might take that attitude when my working days are done.

Yamada, the head of the corps, is already a cancer survivor. He told the media that having once been so near death from illness is part of what makes him want to be useful at Fukushima.

"I want to make the most of the time I have left," he said.

That's one man the whole of Japan can be proud of -- and maybe one from whom the rest of us around the world can learn.

E. Kirsten Peters, Ph.D., is a rural Northwest native whose column is a service Washington State University. Follow her at rockdoc.wsu.edu

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