Veteran of Hanford nuclear site now works at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where the radiation level is still high.
TOKYO — Working in Japan and with his family still living in Richland, Wash., Matthew McCormick has one of the longest commutes in the world.
“I don’t make it very often, only when family calls or the lawn needs to be mowed, that kind of stuff,” he joked.
But McCormick, 55, wouldn’t have it any other way: After working at the Hanford nuclear site for 12 years, he’s helping to lead the cleanup at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was wrecked by an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 and three reactors underwent meltdowns.
Job: Helping clean up Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant
Previous post: Manager of Department of Energy’s Richland Operations Office at Hanford
Quote: “I had a personal connection with the people of Japan. And my heart just went out to them.”
Source: McClatchy, Seattle Times archives
“It’s a personal commitment,” McCormick said in a recent interview at his office in Tokyo’s Shimbashi district. “When the accident happened, it was just a terrible thing. I had a personal connection with the people of Japan. And my heart just went out to them.”
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McCormick, whose wife is half Japanese, spends most of his time at the Fukushima plant, “getting my fingernails dirty and actually handling equipment.”
With radiation levels still high, he wears anti-contamination clothing, covering all of his skin. He said he felt well-protected and had no fears for health or safety.
McCormick and his crew stay at a hotel an hour away, leaving each morning at 6 a.m., driving through an area that’s still evacuated.
“It’s kind of eerie. There’s no people around,” he said. “Houses are vacant. And you drive by. And your heart goes out to the people who were affected by the evacuation and had to leave their homes.”
It all strikes close to home for McCormick.
His wife, Shirley Olinger, is the daughter of a Japanese woman who met and married an American serviceman in the 1950s.
When U.S. forces dropped a second atomic bomb on Japan on Aug. 9, 1945, it killed tens of thousands of people in Nagasaki, the city where McCormick’s mother-in-law was born. (Japan surrendered shortly after, marking the end of World War II.)
Decades later, McCormick became a top U.S. official in charge of cleaning up the waste at Hanford, the site that produced the plutonium that destroyed Nagasaki. He headed one of the Department of Energy’s two management offices at Hanford.
McCormick retired in June, ending a 32-year career with the federal government.
“It was a good job and good work at Hanford, but it was just time to move on and see what else was in store for me.”
It didn’t take long for McCormick to get an answer: He landed in Tokyo the very next month.
McCormick said he knew his life marked a full circle of sorts, having worked at nuclear sites in both the U.S. and Japan.
And it’s something he thinks about often.
“It’s gratifying and it’s motivating — very much so,” he said.
McCormick made his first trip to Japan in 2008 when he and his wife, who also worked as a manager at Hanford, went to Nagasaki to visit relatives.
McCormick works for Kurion, a company headquartered in Irvine, Calif., that focuses on managing nuclear and hazardous waste. The company built a mobile processing system that’s helping to remove radioactive strontium from 400,000 tons of contaminated water stored near the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
McCormick said the company was the only U.S. firm to win a contract from Tokyo Electric Power, which is overseeing the entire cleanup project.
Choosing to do the initial work in a nuclear-free environment, Kurion designed and built the treatment system in the Tri-Cities area and shipped it to Japan on a cargo plane. It arrived in July and began operating in October, after a series of tests.
“Our contract was to build it in America, using American nuclear standards that are equivalent to the Japanese standards,” McCormick said.
He said part of the work in Japan would involve building public support for the cleanup and convincing people that it was a long-term project.
It’s a skill he used at Hanford, lobbying Congress to include cleanup money in annual appropriation bills.
“The cleanup of Fukushima, if you compare it to Hanford, is on the same scale: tens of billions of dollars,” McCormick said.
“And it’s going to take many decades to complete.”