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Fukushima's nuclear cauldron: Retirees who want to go in

Fukushima's radiation has hit deadly levels for the second day, according to Tepco, making efforts to bring the nuclear plant under control difficult. Japan’s retired skilled laborers say they are ready to relieve younger workers.

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So far the Japanese government and the plant's operator, Tepco, have responded hesitantly to the SVC's proposal.

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"The government has said it will welcome our help, but that could be just lip service," says Shiotani. "But they have not rejected us flatly."

Tepco "is quite reluctant to accept us because they are quite proud," he adds. "They want to be able to say they can contain the accident themselves."

But the group's organizers say they detect some movement in official attitudes. The first time he met Tepco executives, "they just pretended to be surprised by our proposal," Shiotani recalls. "Probably to them we are crazy guys."

At a second meeting with officials from both Tepco and the government, however, "my impression was that they were softening," says Shiotani. "Reluctantly they started to consider us."

Some 3,000 people are working at the Fukushima site at the moment, but most of them are unskilled laborers, and all have to be regularly relieved in order to avoid excessive exposure to radiation. Several are reported to have absorbed more than the legal limit already. And about 9,000 workers have been involved in the four-month operation to stabilize the plant.

A handful of SVC members plan to visit Fukushima Daiichi for the first time soon, according to Shiotani. But bravery has its practical aspects, and he is still bogged down in the prosaic problems of insurance.

Appeal to expand insurance coverage

"We are very conscious about our safety … and we have no intention to send our members to Fukushima without insurance," Shiotani says firmly. "I think that's quite reasonable."

The problem is that Japanese state-run insurance plans do not cover volunteers, and private plans do not cover radiation risks. "We are asking government officials and lawmakers to make some sort of government-supported insurance for volunteers," explains Shiotani. "But I have no confidence how soon they can act."

Tepco's recent reports of a second day of deadly radiation levels might not help matters.

In the meantime, Shiotani and his colleagues are working with younger volunteers on fundraising and meeting members of parliament in a bid to win political support for their project.

One thing they are not doing, he says, is arguing over the merits of nuclear power.

"I just hate disputes amongst us, and it has nothing to do with repairing the reactors," he says. "We will have plenty of time after we have brought the reactors to a stable state to debate and argue.

"I've enjoyed the benefits of the Fukushima plant for such a long time, why not thank them by providing some help?" he adds. "Criticizing is very easy, but it's not so easy to make things better. That's why we are sweating so much."

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