The hero pensioners of the Fukushima nuclear disaster

A person in a hazmat suit and gas mask in front of smoke
Everyone within a 12.5-mile radius of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant was evacuated | Shutterstock

It was a Friday afternoon in the spring of 2011, and for many Japanese civilians that meant the joys of the weekend were just around the corner. However, little did they know that the largest earthquake in their nation’s history was about to strike off the eastern coast.

The 9.0 magnitude earthquake occurred at 14:46 local time and was of such great force that it caused the Earth’s axis to shift. It would become known as the ‘Great East Japan Earthquake’.

The quake triggered a massive 46ft high tsunami that quickly headed for the mainland. With just 10 minutes warning, residents attempted to flee from the coast. The giant wave engulfed entire towns, leading to the deaths of over 18,000 people.

Some 60 miles south of the epicentre, sat the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The tsunami made light work of the plant’s seawall defence and flooded the reactors. The generators pumping coolant around the cores failed, leading to a nuclear meltdown in three of the reactors. Subsequent hydrogen explosions damaged buildings and radioactive material leaked into the atmosphere and the surrounding Pacific Ocean.

The Japanese government declared an ever-increasing evacuation zone around the plant that grew to a 12.5-mile radius, leading to the displacement of over 150,000 residents. The nuclear disaster was classified as Level Seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale, joining just one other accident to receive such a ranking - the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The world was facing another terrifying nuclear fallout and waited with bated breath.

The Japanese government, along with the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), raced to contain the incident. Just like the 600,000 decontamination workers, known as ‘liquidators’, brought in to help clean up after the Chernobyl disaster, thousands of Japanese workers risked their lives in the coming months to stabilise and clean up the plant.

For one retired engineer and cancer survivor, Yasuteru Yamada, the thought of all those young people putting themselves in harm’s way just didn’t make sense and he vowed to do something about it. Mr. Yamada began putting the word out that he wished to assemble a group of skilled retired volunteers who’d be willing to go to the Fukushima power station. Volunteers flooded in and it wasn’t long before the Skilled Veterans Corps for Fukushima (SVCF) was formed.

By the summer of 2011, the group had amassed over 400 former technicians, engineers, and ex-power plant workers all over the age of 60. Mr. Yamada began to lobby the Japanese government to allow his group to take the place of the young currently working at the Fukushima power station. For Mr. Yamada, it was the logical thing to do.

‘I am 72 and on average I probably have 13 to 15 years left to live', Mr. Yamada said back in 2011. ‘Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take 20 or 30 years or longer to develop. Therefore, us older ones have less chance of getting cancer.’

The Japanese government, however, rebuked their initial offer of help. Goshi Hosono, the special advisor to the government on the nuclear crisis publicly dubbed them ‘the suicide corps’, although his stance softened as the world picked up the story of the brave volunteers. The government and TEPCO soon publicly thanked the SVCF for their offer, although they insisted they had enough workers to control the crisis.

Comparisons to the Japanese kamikaze pilots of WW2 began flooding in, to the frustration of many in the SVCF. ‘I want them to stop calling us the “suicide corps” or kamikazes,’ SVCF member Masaaki Takahashi said. ‘We're doing nothing special. I simply think I have to do something and I can't allow just young people to do this.’

Mr. Yamada shared this sentiment. ‘I don't think I'm particularly special,’ he said. ‘Most Japanese have this feeling in their heart. The question is whether you step forward, or you stay behind and watch. To take that step you need a lot of guts, but I hope it will be a great experience. Most Japanese want to help out any way they can.’

As mid-summer approached, worker shortages at the plant reached critical levels. Hosono changed his tune and reached out to Mr. Yamada and his volunteers. Their moment had seemingly arrived.

‘People who are willing to sacrifice their daily lives to help the nation resolve these problems are invaluable,’ Hosono told reporters. Mr. Yamada was invited in to carry out preliminary inspections and to help design a replacement for the destroyed reactor cooling system.

After the initial inspection, the SVCF hoped the doors to the plant would be opened for them. This was not the case.

A year after the disaster, the SVCF had grown to 700 active members and was recognised as a public service organisation. However, their members remained frustrated and left in the dark by the authorities. Mr. Yamada embarked on a tour of the U.S. in the hope America would put pressure on the Japanese government to stop relying on young workers to clean up at Fukushima.

‘TEPCO . . . is not thinking 10 years ahead. Where there is work that needs to be done, it should be done by the people for whom the risk is lowest,’ Mr. Yamada reiterated his stance to the world.

In response, a TEPCO spokesperson declared they had ‘no policy of favouring older workers in areas that involve radiation exposure’ and stated they just hadn’t found a useful role for the SVCF.

Mr. Yamada continued to hold out hope that his group of retired volunteers would be called upon to help. However, time was not on his side, and according to the SVCF website, Mr. Yamada passed away in June 2014.

Although the call never came, the SVCF remains active to this day, leading the charge on social and educational projects surrounding the continuing clean up of Fukushima, which authorities believe might take another 40 years to complete.