Japan’s Unlikely Saviors: Elderly Willing to Toil in a Nuke No-Go Zone

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In ancient Japan, or so the folktale goes, there used to be a mountain where old people were taken and abandoned once they reached 60 years of age. Although the practice of obasute was probably more rural legend than actual reality, it is a chilling reminder of the perils of old age in a nation where roughly one-quarter of Japanese are now 60 years old or above.

But lest anyone think that Japan’s growing coterie of elderly doesn’t contribute to society, a newly formed group called the Skilled Veterans Corps shows just how vital pensioners are to rebuilding a nation still reeling from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Composed of nearly 250 retired engineers and other professionals as of June 1, the group is volunteering to tread where few dare to go: the forbidden zone around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which is still leaking radiation after the earthquake and tsunami devastated the facility. Skilled Veterans Corps was founded by Yasuteru Yamada, a 72-year-old retired engineer who believes that it is the older segment of society that should expose itself to potentially deadly radiation, thereby protecting younger Japanese from long-term health risks. “Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take 20 or 30 years or longer to develop,” Yamada told the BBC. “I am 72 and on average I probably have 13 to 15 years left to live.”

The stoicism and selflessness with which Japanese have dealt with this year’s natural disasters have been remarkable to behold. But nowhere is the collective, sacrificial spirit greater than among Japan’s elderly. They, more than younger Japanese, remember what it was like when Japan was not yet a rich, comfortable nation. Many, like Yamada, are determined to contribute whatever they can to return their country to normal. “Our generation who has, consciously or unconsciously, approved the construction of the Fukushima nuclear power plants and enjoyed the benefits of the vast supply of electricity generated… should be the first to join the Skilled Veteran Corps to install or repair the [Fukushima plant’s damaged] cooling system,” says a mission statement on the group’s new website. “This is the duty of our generation to the next generation and the one thereafter.”

(PHOTOS: Inside the Fukushima Nuclear Exclusion Zone

A disproportionate number of elderly were killed by the March 11 catastrophe, in part because they could not evacuate quickly enough and in part because the remote areas where they lived had already suffered an exodus of young people to the big cities. Of those that survived, some are living in temporary housing and are awaiting news of whether their villages or towns will be rebuilt at all. In the meantime, though, the Skilled Veterans Corps is hoping to step into the breach and do what they can to at least mitigate the nuclear—if not natural—disaster. So far the elderly volunteers have not gotten permission from the government to enter the nuclear no-go zone. But the dangers at the Fukushima plant, where three reactors have most likely suffered meltdowns, show little sign of abating. Plant operator Tepco announced earlier this week that yet two more workers, one in his 30s and another in his 40s, may have been exposed to radiation levels surpassing maximum government limits. (The current maximum of 250 millisieverts is already more than double the previous ceiling of 100 millisieverts.) For young and old, the fallout from Japan’s March 11 calamity continues.