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Pensioners volunteer to help clean up Fukushima
May 20, 2011 9:28 AM   Subscribe

As the Japanese government and TEPCO struggle to bring the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant under control, a group of pensioners has decided to put their lives at risk to save younger people from radiation.
posted by Blasdelb (19 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
As a 40-something, I am very pleased to see that Japan considers 72 to be middle-aged.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:35 AM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wow. Wow. Grumpy old men != completely outstanding human beings.

"[Yasuteru] Yamada and his friends have now contacted 2,500 people in Tokyo and the surroundings. Some 450 people have already offered their help and 90 of them - all in their 60s - have agreed to work in the plant itself. He says they are "worried about what’s coming. But should we not do anything just because we are worried?"

and then

"The two pensioners [Yasuteru Yamada and Kazuko Sasaki] said they had heard about untrained workers being sent to the plant without being explicitly warned but refused to comment further, apart from saying the rumor had only strengthened their resolve to become more active."
posted by likeso at 9:42 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow, that's a serious commitment to community and a testament to self-sacrifice. Good for them, I hope that once they're done, they get to spend every day of the rest of their lives doing whatever the heck they want.

I can only hope that if put in a similar situation, I could find it in myself to be half that brave.
posted by quin at 9:45 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Let 89-year-old Harald Camping put this in his fucking pipe and smoke it.
posted by likeso at 9:49 AM on May 20, 2011 [10 favorites]


WTF? How is it that sometimes the Japanese seem several orders of magnitude more reasonable and/or organized than everyone else? Do they all have a secret weakness or kick puppies when no one is looking or something?

These "middle-aged" pensioners are amazing. I am in awe.
posted by GuyZero at 9:54 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


People often ask "Why do you love Japan so much?"

It's the people. It all starts with the people.
posted by djrock3k at 10:04 AM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


GuyZero: As near as I can tell, the nation is split between people who are completely self-sacrificing and reasonable and polite, which leads to incredible stories like this one, and those who can't live up to that standard, break, and become the target market for all the abjectly insane Japanese pop culture and/or pornography we hear about.

Anyway, this is amazing. If they go through with this, they should basically get anything they want for the rest of their lives. ESPECIALLY the medical or end-of-life care some of them will doubtless need.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:10 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Do they all have a secret weakness or kick puppies when no one is looking or something?"
Umm...

posted by Blasdelb at 10:30 AM on May 20, 2011


As near as I can tell, the nation is split between people who are completely self-sacrificing and reasonable and polite, which leads to incredible stories like this one, and those who can't live up to that standard, break, and become the target market for all the abjectly insane Japanese pop culture and/or pornography we hear about.
Because OBVIOUSLY people can't be BOTH self sacrificing AND into weird porn, right?
posted by delmoi at 10:45 AM on May 20, 2011 [10 favorites]


Fair point, but in all seriousness the psychological pressure involved in being a Good Japanese Citizen, from all reports I've heard, both professional and personal, is immense, and people do snap from it.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:02 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


It makes a certain amount of sense, pragmatically, for retirement-age people to get in there. Not to be too cold and calculating about it, but whoever does this is greatly increasing the chance of cancer developing during their lifetime, and these guys have a lot less time to develop said cancers than a twenty year old in the same position.

Unless I'm totally misunderstanding something about the relationship between age and cancer, but hey, I lack the appropriate degrees to be an authority on this.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:08 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


You go old people! I hope to be half as brave when I am a ripe "middle-age" of 72 as these people are.

If you only have twenty years (or so) left to live, it makes sense that you should go in place of your sons, daughters, grandchildren, etc. You may never experience the ill effects of the exposure, and you save someone else from most likely dying of cancer.
posted by Malice at 11:12 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Unless I'm totally misunderstanding something about the relationship between age and cancer"

Nope thats exactly the reasoning, at least from a pragmatic standpoint, and it is sound. Though older folks would have a harder time dealing with the direct cell damage associated with acute radiation poisoning.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:20 AM on May 20, 2011


I am not a cancer biologist (I’m not even a cell biologist, though sometimes I can fake it), and I welcome correction. That said, my basic understanding of the relationship of radiation and cancer suggests that these older people have not, as we would wish, come up with a perfect dodge against the effects of radiation – it’s not as simple as “the effects won’t show up for 40 years, so anyone older than ~65 is safe.”

Cancer represents the serial breakdown of many different cellular mechanisms which prevent unwanted cellular proliferation; a number of different genes need to mutate for the brakes on the cell to be released. One analogy for the process is to imagine placing a telephone call: all the correct numbers must be entered to place the call. (Gosh this works better for old-style phones.) For a cancer to develop by pure chance, ten separate numbers must be entered. This is very unlikely for any given cell, but over the trillions of cells in our bodies, there’s a decent chance of it happening over the course of a long lifetime.

What happens with radiation is that it enters some of the numbers on some of the phones in your body. It raises the background level of pre-cancerous cells high enough that background mutation rates throughout the rest of your lifetime are likely to finish dialing that number in at least some cells in your body. So this is the image for you for a young person exposed to radiation: their cells have a lot of numbers half-dialed, and over the next several years or decades, the last few numbers in a few of those cells have a chance of being pushed.

The image for you for an older person exposed to radiation is the inverse: their cells already have a lot of numbers pressed. They already have the pre-cancerous cells. Being exposed to radiation is likely to push enough buttons on each of those cells to push them into cancer immediately.

Based on this very simple model of cancer formation – that genes mutate at steady background rates, that cancer represents the mutation of a critical number of proto-oncogenes, that oncogene mutations build up at the background mutation rate, and that radiation exposure represents a one-time high-level mutagenic episode – a person exposed to radiation at age 65 does not have a lower chance of developing cancer at 66 than a person exposed to radiation at age 35 does of developing cancer at 66. In addition, (s)he’s taking on the cancer risk the 35 year old had of developing cancer between 35 and 65 as well. What’s really different is that the 65 year old has a zero chance of dying at 50.

Now, the model I just described is probably wrong, and it may be wrong in important ways. For instance, people who have survived to their 60’s may be overall less cancer prone that the general population. The body may be flushing those precancerous cells over time. I may be missing something else important. But I do believe it’s true that being older brings the time-horizon of any carcinogenic effects of radiation poisoning closer.
posted by endless_forms at 11:45 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


It makes a certain amount of sense, pragmatically, for retirement-age people to get in there. Not to be too cold and calculating about it, but whoever does this is greatly increasing the chance of cancer developing during their lifetime, and these guys have a lot less time to develop said cancers than a twenty year old in the same position.
Stagger Lee

This reminded me of the writings of infamous Cold War nuclear strategist/theorist Herman Kahn, who among other things proposed that irradiated food could be set aside for the elderly because the elderly would die before the onset of radiation-induced cancers.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:47 PM on May 20, 2011


endless_forms, my copy of this, on pages 397-398, talks about epidemiological data that demonstrates that older folks were indeed progressively more likely to develop cancer, specifically leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma as a result of exposure to Chernobyl ash in the few years after the disaster. Though we will need to wait a generation to be able to tell weather Chernobyl was more destructive to person years in younger or older people.

I would still bet big odds on younger folks though, even excluding children, if only for the fact that doctors in Brazil are still seeing new bone cancers in people exposed to Cesium-137 in the 80s.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:04 PM on May 20, 2011


We pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave us birth.
Let us rest our eye on fleecy skies
And the cool, green hills of Earth.
posted by The Tensor at 1:08 PM on May 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


From what I've read, studied, and been told by the family cancer research SIL, endless has it.

These people are amazing. Although, if it came down to me or my adult children, the parents of my grandkidlings, I think I'd rather be first on the truck. Still, the cultural values that have prompted these people are to be envied.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:17 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Time Magazine has just put up a series of 53 photos of the Fukushima disaster, taken before, during and after the earthquake/tsunami, many of which show amazing views of the structure as the sea was hitting it, and also conditions inside the control rooms, and the reactor buildings in the days immediately following. More than any other coverage that I've seen, this series gives a sense of the immediate hell that was slowly overwhelming the operators of the plant as the situation worsened, and they realized what few resources were left to them in trying to manage the nearly unmanageable.

After viewing this series, I don't know about the wisdom of putting 60 and 70 year old minimally trained volunteers in heavy protective gear into that site. There is so much clean up to be done, but it is such a dangerous, disrupted place that I think the utility of volunteers in general may not be much.

But I do applaud the selfless, pragmatic attitude of those trying to organize this effort. If there are any tasks that they can do, that will relieve current rescue workers in some effective way, I'd say they should have the chance they seek to help.
posted by paulsc at 5:17 AM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


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