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 in Washington state for 12 years, he’s helping to lead the cleanup at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which melted down in March 2011.
“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.”
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 very 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 President Harry Truman bombed Japan in 1945, marking the end of World War II, it killed tens of thousands of people in Nagasaki, the city where McCormick’s mother-in-law was born.
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 last 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,” he said.
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 and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.
He can’t speak Japanese, relying on an interpreter to do his work at Fukushima, but he said he quickly developed a love affair with Japan.
“I love the people and the culture and the food. You cannot find a bad restaurant in Japan,” McCormick said.
But it’s the work that drives him, using American technology to help the Japanese people deal with the catastrophe at Fukushima.
McCormick works for Kurion Inc., 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 the Tokyo Electric Power Co., 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 Washington state’s 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.
As McCormick does his work, he’s avoiding the public debate over whether Japan should restart some of the 48 nuclear plants that were shut down after the Fukushima disaster.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his administration said it was safe to begin reopening the plants this year, as long as they met higher safety standards put in place as a result of the disaster.
But a recent poll found that most Japanese citizens want the plants to remain closed, fearing another catastrophe.
“We don’t even know the final disposal place of the Fukushima waste. We should discuss this after we decide where to dispose of the waste,” said Hatsuhiko Aoki, an artist from Gifu Prefecture.
Yoshitaka Mukohara, the president of a publishing company and the secretary-general of the Anti-Nuclear Kagoshima Network, said the Abe administration was acting irresponsibly.
“There are some places that are not decontaminated, but the government is sending people back,” Mukohara said. “What they are doing is acting like nothing ever happened.”
McCormick has no interest in weighing in on the controversy.
“It’s really a decision that the Japanese people have to make, in terms of how they get their energy,” McCormick said. “I’ve been focused on the cleanup.”
But McCormick 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.”