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Into the Breach

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The Tohoku earthquake and tsunamis that devastated eastern Japan back in March is the kind of disaster that will take a full generation to recover from. At the time of this writing, the casualties include some 30,000 people dead, injured or missing, and there is extensive damage to industrial facilities, transport facilities, telecommunications and to nearly 500 cultural monuments across the country. The total bill for all this looks like it will top $300 billion. Maybe one tenth of that is insured.

Just one part of this is the ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant, which sustained heavy damage to its reactors during the quake. Since then, the company that runs the plant admits that it thinks three of its reactors have melted down, and the government has established a 20 km no-go zone around the plant. So far, the effort to stabilize the leaking reactors has been undertaken by an incredibly brave group of workers who are not only enduring hellish conditions within the plant that include potentially fatal radiation exposure.

This has prompted the formation of the Skilled Veterans Corps, an all-volunteer group of retired engineers and other professionals, all over the age of 60, whose aim is to take point on the effort to stabilize the Fukushima reactors. The idea is that cancer from Fukushima will take 15 or 20 years to surface, so why not let people who probably have less time than that to live take all the risk?

It is uncertain if the SVC will actually get to work on Fukushima, though the group’s ranks are swelling as it recruits more volunteers through a successful e-mail and Twitter campaign. A handful of Japanese legislators back the idea, and who knows? Maybe it will come to pass. It seems crazy until you realize that this is the nation that created a warrior caste so dedicated that ritual suicide came with their job description. And it seems brave until you learn that the way the SVC see it, this is no kamikaze mission. Rather, it is simply good risk management for a dangerous job they have every intention of coming home from.

The SVC is doing something that is largely contrary to what the life and health industry stands for. The SVC are willing to take a huge health risk. They are members of one of the most heavily life-insured nations on the planet, though I suspect voluntary exposure to radiation might void some policies. But most of all, their desire to fix the reactors flies in the face of what retirement is supposed to be. These are people who, according to retirement planning marketing, should be living a life of senior leisure. Such a life is typically characterized as a fulfilling goal and in and of itself, and I guess can see the point. After all, the idea of kicking back on a hammock for a quarter-century sounds pretty good. (At least, it’s supposed to. I have not tried it myself, and I suspect that if I did, I would go stir crazy.)

The life and health industry now earns more of its earnings from retirement funding than from supporting widows and orphans or from helping people survive hospitalization. The industry has become a delivery mechanism for the notion that we spend our prime years working so we can earn the right to not work at all, and in this, we are to be fulfilled. But when I see a group of 60- and 70-year-olds willing to march into the jaws of hell to help their countrymen, I see real fulfillment, however Quixotic it may be. There is no price tag for that, let alone a financial plan.

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