TOKYO — A group of retired Japanese nuclear and civil engineers are hoping to report back for duty for one last mission -- to stabilise the radiation-leaking Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
More than 160 engineers, including many former atomic plant workers, aged 60 or older say they want to set up a "Skilled Veterans Corps" to help restore the cooling systems crippled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
"We shouldn't leave the work only to young engineers," said Yasuteru Yamada, who made the proposal after hearing that young subcontractors, some of them unskilled workers, were engaged in the high-risk salvage effort.
"Young people, especially those who will have children in future, should not be exposed to radiation," said Yamada, a 72-year-old retired engineer who used to work on plant construction at Sumitomo Metal Industries.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has not publicly commented on the proposal, but some lawmakers have voiced their support.
Under the group's proposal, the government would authorise an independent body of skilled engineers aged over 60 to take over ground work on restoring cooling systems from TEPCO, which runs the six-reactor plant.
At present, more than 1,000 people, including young subcontractors, are working at Fukushima, where high radiation levels have been monitored since the tsunami destroyed cooling systems and triggered several explosions.
While the troubled utility aims to achieve "cold shutdown" sometime between October and January, some experts estimate it will take a decade to dismantle the plant located 220 kilometres (135 miles) northeast of Tokyo.
Yamada said his proposed team was not comparable to the "kamikaze" suicide squads of military pilots who crashed their fighter planes into US battleships just before Japan surrendered in World War II.
"Everybody is afraid of death. So am I," Yamada told AFP, explaining that the team would work on condition their exposure to radiation was strictly controlled and the operation had the full backing of authorities.
But some would-be volunteers said they were ready to face the possible consequences of a return to work.
Masahiro Ueda, 69, a former nuclear power plant worker with more than four decades of expertise on water pumps of cooling systems, said he had applied to take part and would be willing to give his life.
"I'm old. I don't care when I die," he said.
"I want to devote the rest of my career to the restoration (of the Fukushima Daiichi plant). Someone should take action. You can't work properly at nuclear plants without specialist knowledge.
The team would be set up to work with TEPCO as an "equal partner," Yamada said, calling for dialogue with the government and the utility as quickly as possible.
TEPCO declined to comment on the proposal, but some ruling party lawmakers have voiced support.
"We need to bring the participants' voices to parliament as well as to the government," said Hiroe Makiyama, an upper house member of the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan.
"We will also consider the necessary legislation to back the project."
The cabinet expressed its gratitude for the offer of help, but was cautious about the proposal.
"We are very thankful and want to accept their feeling of devoted action," said Goshi Hosono, the special adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan in charge of addressing the ongoing crisis, according to local media.
"But our principle is that we should stick to procedures that will not require such a 'suicide corps'," Hosono said.
Naoyuki Takaki, professor of nuclear engineering at Tokai University in Kanagawa, said there are still many jobs that do not require nuclear expertise during restoration procedures at the Fukushima plant.
"But since the total amount of radiation exposure per person is limited, a large number of workers should be secured as the operation is expected to take a long time," Takaki added.
Aside from the 160 volunteers, some other former workers at the Fukushima plant also say they are ready to return to their jobs for the sake of the tens of thousands of evacuees from the radiation-hit region.
"If I can get a contract, I will go for sure," said Masayoshi Miura, a 55-year-old subcontractor for the Fukushima plant, who has now evacuated to Minamisoma, a town some 25 kilometres (16 miles) from the stricken facility.
"And if I can go, it will be my last duty there," Miura said. "My wish is to help reduce fear among the residents and to bring them back home as quickly as possible. That's all."
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