MICHELE NORRIS, host: Japan's new government faces a daunting array of problems stemming from last spring's deadly earthquake and tsunami, among them, rebuilding northeastern Japan and compensating victims. There's also the dangerous cleanup effort now under way at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and Lucy Craft reports that on that count the government is getting an unusual offer of help.
LUCY CRAFT: There are volunteer groups and then there is something called the Skilled Veterans Corps for Fukushima. Comprised entirely of retirees, the Skilled Veterans have a single mission: to replace younger workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant with senior citizens. More than 500 seniors have signed up for a job that has been called courageous and suicidal.
One of the newest members is Keiko Noda(ph). At 57, she says she has no qualms about working at the still unstable and dangerously irradiated nuclear plant.
KEIKO NODA: (Foreign language spoken)
CRAFT: She says: I want to do anything I can to help, whatever is necessary. Another grandmother ready to serve is 72 year old Kazuko Sasaki.
KAZUKO SASAKI: (Foreign language spoken)
CRAFT: She says: My generation built those nuclear plants, so we have to take responsibility for them. We can't dump this on the next generation.
The founder of Skilled Volunteers is a slightly built, soft-spoken man of 72 named Yasuteru Yamada. An engineer who has spent his life around industrial plants, Yamada says he and his retired colleagues quickly realized after the March 11th disaster that Fukushima was in meltdown and that the prognosis was far bleaker than the government was letting on.
His decision to gather senior volunteers, he says, was based neither on courage nor altruism, but on a brutally realistic calculus. Better to send men and women in the sunset of their lives, who have finished raising their families, than younger workers whose lives would be cut short by extreme radiation exposure.
YASUTERU YAMADA: (Foreign language spoken)
CRAFT: He says: We won't completely replace younger workers, but for work that doesn't require brute strength, we can fill in where the radiation is especially high. Yamada's gray volunteers have gleaned admiring coverage from around the world and have been all but ignored by the Japanese media, which doesn't seem to take them seriously.
Undeterred, the seniors, who include former nuclear workers, forklift operators, translators and even a folk singer, have pooled their skills and become proficient at social media, attracting volunteers into their 90s and raising over $100,000 in donations.
Their offer of assistance is still being weighed by Tokyo Electric Power, owner of the notorious plant, and the government. But after weeks of getting the cold shoulder, the seniors were finally allowed to visit the accident site in August and have submitted a proposal to send in teams of seniors for light work in dangerous hot spots, such as monitoring radiation levels.
At 72, Yamada is hard of hearing and a lymphoma survivor. His near-death experience has shaped the mission to serve at Fukushima.
YAMADA: (Foreign language spoken)
CRAFT: I want to make the most of the time I have left, he says. Yamada says, however, that he's in no hurry. With the cleanup of the Fukushima plant likely to take decades, there's plenty of time, he says, for the government to come round.
For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.
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