Radioactive Metal Theft From Fukushima Raises Concerns Over Safety and Security

Construction workers stole and sold potentially radioactive metal from near the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, the Japanese environment ministry said on Thursday. The materials went missing from a museum being demolished in a particular zone around four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the atomic plant in northeast Japan knocked out by a tsunami in 2011. The government is working with local authorities to find the material.

The incident shows that the ministry is still struggling to ensure the site’s safety, which was rocked by a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, causing three reactors at the plant to melt down. It has faced accusations of mishandling radioactive waste, tampering with data, and other problems since the disaster.

The United States has long pressed Tokyo to do more to protect Rokkasho and its new stockpile of plutonium, arguing that terrorists might view the facility as an irresistible target. But the senior Obama administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, acknowledged that he had not yet seen any evidence that the government had taken those concerns seriously.

Instead, he said, it has left the security role at nuclear plants in the hands of private, unarmed guards who are expected to call police if they see a threat. “They’ve treated this as more of a law-enforcement task than a quasi-military mission,” the official said.

That mentality is rooted in a legacy from the nation’s colonial history when the British Empire kept a vast domestic intelligence apparatus that kept close watch over Japan. Even after World War II, the government’s penchant for secrecy has continued. That has frustrated many in the West, as it has stifled the release of information about potential risks to human health and the environment.

However, some former prime ministers and experts have pushed the government to change its approach. Kan, who was in office during the disaster, recalls debriefing officials from the then-national Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) after they visited the United States. He said they concluded that while America might be vulnerable to terror attacks on nuclear facilities, it was unlikely to happen in Japan.

The government is preparing to release the first tanks of treated water from the plant into the sea in early 2024, but it will empty only ten at the start because it will be too expensive to continue production for much longer. The company is trying to reassure seafood industry groups about water safety. It is taking steps to combat claims that it will damage the reputation of Fukushima’s fisheries. It also sets aside 80 billion yen ($550 million) to help support the area and battle allegations of reputational damage in overseas markets. The government and TEPCO have also launched a diplomatic campaign to promote the plan. The International Atomic Energy Agency has endorsed the release and is reviewing it for compliance with nuclear safeguards.

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