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Retired scientists still want to help at Japan nuclear plant

December 8, 2011 |  8:35 pm

REPORTING FROM TOKYO -- Retired scientist Nobuhiro Shiotani is stubborn: He still hasn’t given up on his idea of helping the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant clean up its hazardous mess from the March meltdowns at several of its reactors.

The 72-year-old former scientist, co-founder of the Skilled Veterans Corps, was the subject of a Times article in July about hundreds of retirees who want to lend their expertise to the stricken facility’s cleanup effort from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Their point is well-reasoned: Why subject young, mostly unskilled workers to the long-term perils of working around deadly radioactivity when there are older people with training who probably will be dead long before the adverse health effects -- including cancer -- come to pass?

Now with more than 600 former scientists and researchers ranging in age from 60 to 78, the group’s heroic story represented a lesson about growing old gracefully, about demonstrating the sheer willfulness of youth in an aging body.

But so far there has been little positive response to Shiotani's offer to risk his life to assist his nation.

In a recent conversation, Shiotani reported that the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., known as Tepco, has essentially paid lip service to the group’s offer of assistance.

In the Times article in July, Shiotani described how Japan’s older generation feels a sense of guilt over the disaster  because scientists of their era helped pave the way for nuclear power in Japan and benefited from its use. Now they don’t want to leave the legacy of lingering radioactive poison of generations to come. Not on their watch.

But Tepco has thrown up roadblocks. First it expressed concern about insurance, so the group answered by registering as a nonprofit corporation, introducing a plan to cover members with compensation insurance and a healthcare plan.

In mid-July, not long after the Times report, Tepco officials allowed five Skilled Veterans Corps members -- including Shiotani -- on a tour of the cleanup efforts at the No. 4 reactor at the facility, 220 miles north of Tokyo.

The tour was reminiscent of the film "Space Cowboys," the 2000 science-fiction romp starring Clint Eastwood about four over-the-hill test pilots sent in to repair an old Soviet satellite.

Donning protective haz-mat suits and oxygen masks, the five corps members  entered one of the most radioactive places on Earth. Shiotani said the experience made him appreciate the challenges faced by nuclear workers restricted by such confining uniforms.

 “A full-faced mask narrowed visibility, and breathing through charcoal filters was tough. Voice communication was very limited; it was hot in sealed overalls,” he said. “I couldn’t move freely, couldn’t move my arms or look around. Even to screw or unscrew a bolt, even that sort of simple job, would be quite difficult under such circumstances.”

Still he was saddened by the sight of the legions of unskilled contractors lining up to do jobs that he believes might cause them grave health problems one day. They were precisely the people he wanted to protect.

Without any follow-up from Tepco, the retirees have revised their strategy and arranged to attend training sessions for a government program to monitor radiation in communities that were evacuated after the March disaster.

Only when radiation levels return to limits accepted by Tokyo will residents be allowed to return. So far, the task has been done by Tepco engineers who periodically visit 50 designated spots for measurements.

Shiotani now wants to take over that job. He is heading the Skilled Veterans Corp’s measuring team. 

Time will tell whether the retirees will achieve their goal of helping in a meaningful way, but Shiotani calls the government’s overture “the first dot of light we see in complete darkness” since organizing the effort.

Meanwhile, Shiotani continues to give proof to the adage: Age is just a number.


Japanese retirees volunteer to work in stricken nuclear plant

Japan's 'nuclear gypsies' face radioactive peril at power plants 

Traces of radiation found in Japanese baby formula

-- John M. Glionna

Photo: Retired scientist Nobuhiro Shiotani co-founded the  Skilled Veterans Corps to help clean up radiation from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Credit: Tom Miyagawa Coulton / For The Times