TOKYO (Reuters) – At age 72, Yasuteru Yamada believes he has a few more good years ahead.
But not so many that the retired engineer is worried about the consequences of working on the hazardous front line cleaning up the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.
"I will be dead before cancer gets me," said Yamada, who has organized an unlikely band of more than 270 retirees and older workers eager to work for nothing but the sense of service at the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
Yamada, who spent 28 years at Sumitomo Metal Industries, says the Fukushima clean-up job is too sprawling, too complex and too important to be left to Tokyo Electric Power, the Fukushima plant's embattled utility operator.
Instead, he wants to see the Japanese government take over at Fukushima with his group of graying volunteers with expertise in civil engineering and construction stepping in on an unpaid basis, "like the Red Cross."
Japanese government officials were initially cool to the unsolicited proposal. Goshi Hosono, an aide to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, dismissed Yamada's volunteers as a "suicide corps."
But in a late May meeting at Tokyo Electric's headquarters, Hosono seemed more receptive to the suggestion amid mounting concern about the health risks for younger workers already at Fukushima.
Three unidentified workers collapsed at Fukushima from apparent heat stroke over the weekend. Meanwhile, at least two plant workers have exceeded the government's limit for radiation exposure by a wide margin, putting them at a higher risk of cancer and other disease.
"The problem is that the first wave of workers came for the money. And they didn't - they couldn't - object to the conditions," said Yamada, who has been running his project from a tiny office above a beauty shop a short walk from Tokyo Electric's headquarters.
"Because we don't expect a fee we can speak to (Tokyo Electric) as equals," he said, adding that his team would press the utility to uphold the highest safety standards.
Tokyo Electric aims to bring three reactors at Fukushima that experienced a meltdown to a stable shutdown by January. After that, experts see a project of a decade or more to remove the uranium and plutonium fuel and secure the site.
Kazuhiko Ishida, a 63-year-old construction worker in Shiga prefecture, has volunteered to join Yamada's team. As a young worker, he helped build the Fukushima No. 1 reactor's outer shell and says he had "complicated feelings" watching it blown apart by a hydrogen explosion after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami as its reactor melted down.
"I told my wife I wanted to go," he said. "She told me to do what I had to do."
Yamada met on Monday with Trade Minister Banri Kaieda, whose ministry oversees Japan's nuclear safety agency. Kaieda seemed receptive to the proposal of a volunteer corps, he said.
"Depending on the situation, there might be a need for a suicide mission. But that is the last resort," Yamada said. "I myself would volunteer for that, but everyone must make up their own mind."