Monday, March 14, 2011

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japan quake aftermath REUTERS/Digital Globe/Handout

Japanese ordered indoors in radiation leak crisis

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The rubble caused by an earthquake and tsunami fill the landscape in Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, Japan, Monday, March 14, 2011, three days after northea AP – The rubble caused by an earthquake and tsunami fill the landscape in Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, Japan, …

SOMA, Japan – Radiation leaked from a crippled nuclear plant in tsunami-ravaged northeastern Japan after a third reactor was rocked by an explosion Tuesday and a fourth caught fire in a dramatic escalation of the 4-day-old catastrophe. The government warned anyone nearby to stay indoors to avoid exposure.
Tokyo also reported slightly elevated radiation levels but officials said the increase was too small to threaten anyone in the capital.
In a nationally televised statement, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said radiation has spread from four reactors of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Fukushima province, one of the hardest-hit in Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that has killed more than 10,000 people.
"The level seems very high, and there is still a very high risk of more radiation coming out," Kan said. "We are making utmost efforts to prevent further explosions and radiation leaks."
This is the worst nuclear crisis Japan has faced since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. It is also the first time that such a grave nuclear threat has been raised in the world since a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine exploded in 1986.
Kan warned there are dangers of more leaks and told people living within 19 miles (30 kilometers) of the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex to stay indoors to avoid radiation sickness. Some 70,000 people had already been evacuated from a 12-mile (20-kilometer) radius and 140,000 remain in the zone for which the new warning was issued.
Three reactors at the power plant were in critical condition after Friday's quake, losing their ability to cool down and releasing some radiation. A fourth reactor that was unoperational caught fire on Tuesday and more radiation was released, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.
The fire was put out. Even though it was unoperational, the fourth reactor was believed to be the source of the elevated radiation release because of the hydrogen release that triggered the fire.
"It is likely that the level of radiation increased sharply due to a fire at Unit 4," Edano said. "Now we are talking about levels that can damage human health. These are readings taken near the area where we believe the releases are happening. Far away, the levels should be lower," he said.
"Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors. Please close windows and make your homes airtight. Don't turn on ventilators. Please hang your laundry indoors," he said.
"These are figures that potentially affect health. There is no mistake about that," he said.
He said a reactor whose containment building caught fire Monday has not contributed greatly to the increased radiation. The radiation level around one of the reactors stood at 400,000 microsiverts per hour, four times higher than the safe level.
Officials said 50 workers were still there trying to put water into the reactors to cool them. They say 800 other staff were evacuated. The fires and explosions at the reactors have injured 15 workers and military personnel and exposed up to 190 people to elevated radiation.
In Tokyo, slightly higher-than-normal radiation levels were detected Tuesday but officials insisted there are no health dangers.
"The amount is extremely small, and it does not raise health concerns. It will not affect us," Takayuki Fujiki, a Tokyo government official said.
The death toll from last week's earthquake and tsunami jumped Tuesday as police confirmed the number killed had topped 2,400, though that grim news was overshadowed by a deepening nuclear crisis. Officials have said previously that at least 10,000 people may have died in Miyagi province alone.
Millions of people spent a fourth night with little food, water or heating in near-freezing temperatures as they dealt with the loss of homes and loved ones. Asia's richest country hasn't seen such hardship since World War II.
Hajime Sato, a government official in Iwate prefecture, one of the hardest-hit, said deliveries of supplies were only 10 percent of what is needed. Body bags and coffins were running so short that the government may turn to foreign funeral homes for help, he said.
Though Japanese officials have refused to speculate on the death toll, Indonesian geologist Hery Harjono, who dealt with the 2004 Asian tsunami, said it would be "a miracle really if it turns out to be less than 10,000" dead.
The 2004 tsunami killed 230,000 people — of which only 184,000 bodies were found.
Harjono noted that many bodies in Japan may have been sucked out to sea or remain trapped beneath rubble as they did in Indonesia's hardest-hit Aceh province. But he also stressed that Japan's infrastructure, high-level of preparedness and city planning to keep houses away from the shore could mitigate its human losses.
The impact of the earthquake and tsunami on the world's third-largest economy helped drag down the share markets Monday, the first business day since the disasters. The benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average for a second day Tuesday, by 6.5 percent to 8,999.73, wiping out this year's gains while the broader Topix index lost 7.5 percent.
To lessen the damage, Japan's central bank injected $61.2 billion Tuesday into the money markets after pumping in $184 billion on Monday.
Initial estimates put repair costs in the tens of billions of dollars, costs that would likely add to a massive public debt that, at 200 percent of gross domestic product, is the biggest among industrialized nations.
In a bid to stop the reactors at the nuclear plant from melting down, engineers have been injecting seawater as a coolant of last resort.
Yuta Tadano, a 20-year-old pump technician at the Fukushima power plant, said he was on the second floor of an office building in the complex when quake hit.
"It was terrible. The desks were thrown around and the tables too. The walls started to crumble around us and there was dust everywhere. The roof began to collapse.
"We got outside and confirmed everyone was safe . Then we got out of there. We had no time to be tested for radioactive exposure. I still haven't been tested," Tadano told The Associated Press at an evacuation center outside the exclusion zone.
"We live about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the facility. We had to figure out on our own where to go," said Tadano, cradling his 4-month-old baby, Shoma. "I worry a lot about fallout. If we could see it we could escape, but we can't."
"Just because we are an evacuation center doesn't mean we are safe," said his sister-in-law Makiko Murasawa, 43.
The nuclear crisis has also raised global concerns about the safety of nuclear power at a time when it has seen a resurgence as an alternative to fossil fuels.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said the Japanese government has asked the agency to send experts to help.
The Dai-ichi plant is the most severely affected of three nuclear complexes that were declared emergencies after suffering damage in Friday's quake and tsunami, raising questions about the safety of such plants in coastal areas near fault lines and adding to global jitters over the industry.
Switzerland ordered a freeze on new plants, while Germany said it was suspending a decision to extend the life of its nuclear plants. The United States said it would try to learn from the Japanese crisis but that events would not diminish the U.S. commitment to nuclear power.
"When we talk about reaching a clean energy standard, it is a vital part of that," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Meanwhile, 17 U.S. military personnel involved in helicopter relief missions were found to have been exposed to low levels of radiation after they flew back from the devastated coast to the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier about 100 miles (160 kilometers) offshore.
U.S. officials said the exposure level was roughly equal to one month's normal exposure to natural background radiation, and the 17 were declared contamination-free after scrubbing with soap and water.
As a precaution, the carrier and other 7th Fleet ships involved in relief efforts had shifted to another area, the U.S. said.
Yuasa reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writer Elaine Kurtenbach contributed to this report.

Third explosion rocks Japanese nuclear plant

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Japan says radiation levels rising around plant after explosion Reuters – Workers at the disaster response headquarters speak on telephones in Fukushima, northern Japan March …

SOMA, Japan – Japan's nuclear crisis deepened dramatically Tuesday. As safety officials sought desperately to avert catastrophe, the government said radioactive material leaking from reactors was enough to "impact human health" and the risk of more leaks was "very high."
In a nationally televised statement, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that radiation has spread from four reactors of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Fukushima province that was one of the hardest-hit in Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the ensuing tsunami.
He urged anyone within 19 miles (30 kilometers) of the plant to stay indoors or risk getting radiation sickness.
"The level seems very high, and there is still a very high risk of more radiation coming out," Kan said.
A cascade of three explosions at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex was set in motion when last Friday's quake and tsunami knocked out power, crippling the cooling systems needed to keep nuclear fuel from going into full meltdown.
The latest blast was early Tuesday in the plant's Unit 2 near a suppression pool, which removes heat under a reactor vessel, plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co. said. Shigekazu Omukai, a spokesman for Japan's nuclear safety agency, said the nuclear core was not damaged but that the bottom of the surrounding container may have been.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said a fourth reactor at the complex was on fire and more radiation had been released.
"Now we are talking about levels that can damage human health. These are readings taken near the area where we believe the releases are happening. Far away, the levels should be lower," he said.
"Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors. Please close windows and make your homes airtight. Don't turn on ventilators. Please hang on your laundry indoors," he said.
"These are figures that potentially affect health, there is no mistake about that," he said.
Japanese officials had previously said radiation levels at the plant were within safe limits, and international scientists said that while there were serious dangers, there was little risk of a catastrophe like Chernobyl in Ukraine, where the reactor exploded and released a radiation cloud over much of Europe.
Unlike the plant in Japan, the Chernobyl reactor was not housed in a sealed container to prevent the release of radiation.
Japanese authorities have been injecting seawater as a coolant of last resort, and advising nearby residents to stay inside to avoid contamination.
"It's like a horror movie," said 49-year-old Kyoko Nambu as she stood on a hillside overlooking her ruined hometown of Soma, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the plant. "Our house is gone and now they are telling us to stay indoors.
"We can see the damage to our houses, but radiation? ... We have no idea what is happening. I am so scared."
Earlier blasts Monday and Saturday injured 15 workers and military personnel and exposed up to 190 people to elevated radiation. Officials said those explosions had been linked to the venting of buildups of steam at two of the troubled reactors and that they had not compromised their inner containers.
The nuclear woes compounded challenges already faced by the Tokyo government as it dealt with twin disasters that flattened entire communities and left as many as 10,000 or more dead.
It also raised global concerns about the safety of nuclear power at a time when it has seen a resurgence as an alternative to fossil fuels.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said the Japanese government has asked the agency to send experts to help.
Japan's meteorological agency reported one good sign. It said the prevailing wind in the area of the stricken plant was heading east into the Pacific, which would help carry away any radiation.
Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writers Tim Sullivan in Bangkok contributed to this report.

Cuba frees dissident who won award from Bush

HAVANA (Reuters) – One of Cuba's leading dissidents, Oscar Elias Biscet, was freed from prison Friday and vowed to keep protesting against the government that had just released him.
Biscet, 49, was one of the last of 52 political prisoners President Raul Castro promised to release in an accord with Cuba's Catholic Church last July. Just three of them remain behind bars.
The 52 had been jailed since a 2003 government crackdown on opponents known as Cuba's "Black Spring" that strained the communist-led island's international relations.
"I'm happy because I'm with my family, my friends, my neighbors," Biscet told Reuters at his Havana home.
But he said: "I feel sad also because in reality I continue to be a prisoner on this island. I changed position, nothing more, from one depressing place to my home that makes me happy."
For Biscet's opposition to Cuba's government, President George W. Bush awarded him in absentia the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.
"For now, the first plan is to be with the family, recuperate and tell the government that we are here to win the freedom of the people," he said.
"I don't think anything has changed," said Biscet, who wore a blue shirt and red tie. "I think we are living difficult moments and that we need the help of the international community."
Castro agreed to free the 52 prisoners after the death of a dissident hunger striker in February 2010 brought international criticism of Cuba's human rights.
Since then, the prisoner release has widened so that about 100 government opponents in all have been freed, with most of them going to Spain, which agreed to take them in. Biscet will stay in Cuba.
Cuban authorities view dissidents as mercenaries working for their archenemy, the United States.
The prisoner release has coincided with Castro's launch of economic reforms to modernize Cuba's Soviet-style economy.
(Reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; Writing by Jeff Franks; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Cuba devalues currency to match US dollar

Cuban and US banknotes in Havana 
Critics say the Cuban peso is still over-valued

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Cuba is devaluing its currency by about 8% compared to the US dollar as part of efforts to revive the economy.
The hard-currency convertible peso used mostly by tourists and foreign firms will now be on a par with the dollar.
The central bank said the aim was to boost exports and local production.
The move will increase the value of remittances received by many Cubans with relatives in the US, and is intended to make the island more affordable for tourists.
The government says it keep a 10% tax on exchanges with the dollar, which it describes as compensation for the "irrational and unjust" US economic embargo.
Each convertible peso will still be worth 24 of the standard pesos in which most Cubans are paid under the communist island's two-tier currency system.
It is the first time Cuba has revalued its currency in six years.
The decision will make foreign imports more expensive, but the government said it hoped to compensate for this by increasing domestic production, especially food.
Debt progress In a statement published in the official communist party newspaper, Granma, central bank president Ernesto Medina said limits placed on payments to foreign companies introduced in 2008 had also been reduced.
He added that there had been "significant advances" in the renegotiation of debt with Cuba's main foreign creditors.
Last year Cuba launched a programme of major economic changes designed to reduce the state's overwhelming role in the economy and promote private enterprise.
Under the plan announced by President Raul Castro last September around a million state workers were due to be laid off and encouraged to find new jobs in the private sector.
Thousands have already applied for licenses to set up small businesses, although the timetable for redundancies has been delayed.
The changes to Cuba's socialist system are due to be discussed at a rare Communist Party Congress in April.
President Castro has said that the changes are vital to overhauling the economy, which is burdened by debt and the effects of the long-standing US trade embargo, as well having to fund costly social programmes,

Biscet asks the Castro brothers to leave power and the Cuban people to act
March 14 - Translation of an article in El Nuevo Herald after the Internet press conference by Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet: In one of his first contacts with the press after his release, dissident Oscar Elias Biscet, the most firm and best known of the 75 dissidents jailed during the 2003 crackdown, called for freedom for Cuba, while urging the Castro brothers to relinquish power.
"It seems that we are rapidly approaching a crossroads in history that will determine the happiness and prosperity for our people in the years to com,'' he said. "We call on all Cubans to take action. We must seize the moment.''
Biscet was speaking Monday morning in a video conference from Havana, organized by the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights and the Miami Dade College.
During the conference, Biscet reaffirmed its decision to remain in Cuba and continue his work for the democratization and pacification of the island.
"That's why all Cubans must act with restraint, fairness and firmness in the defense of our principles without engaging in sectarian extremisms but always uncompromising in terms of freedom, justice and democracy for Cuba,''said Biscet, 49 .
The activist and medical doctor was released on Friday. He gained international fame when he released a document that condemned the indiscriminate use in Cuba of Rivano, a drug to induce abortions. He was serving a sentence of 25 years. He was arrested dozens of times between 1997 and 1999. Since then, Biscet has only been 36 days out of prison.
The Spanish news agency EFE reported that Biscet said that Cuba was suffering a totalitarian dictatorship "same as the  one of Hitler or Stalin."
He praised the work of the Cuban exile community seeking a "peaceful change" in Cuba and called for "a continuation in that line" with the vigilance and support of the international community to make sure that the "Cuban Government doesn't commit a massacre".
‘Better to live in a slum’ than in Cuba
March 14 - Either you’re a part of the Castro clan and their hangers on or you don’t have a chance, says Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez.
Since the fall of Communism in 1989, the Czech Republic has made helping dissidents in repressive regimes a foreign policy priority with Cuba and Belarus front and center; the first Cuban political prisoner granted political asylum in this country, Rolando Jiménez Posada, arrived with his family and relatives in October 2010.
Independent Cuban journalist Yoani Sánchez, 35, didn’t want to become a dissident. She was more the technical type, with an interest in computers, and after earning a degree in philology left for Switzerland to study computer science. The strict Cuban authorities gave her permission to travel and return home afterward — which shows that the regime didn’t consider her to be a threat or likely dissident.
After returning home to Havana, however, Yoani set up the magazine Consenso and has since become probably the best-known writer of electronic samizdat in the island nation. She also writes the blog Generation Y, which has earned her several international awards; she wasn’t able to accept them in person as the Cuban authorities have confiscated her passport.
Last year, Yoani was kidnapped by Cuban agents and mentally and physically abused for several hours. But that didn’t stop her from writing, and at the end of February the official Cuban media began to get publicly engaged in her struggle, making the general public aware of her. She has been twice quoted and accused on television and she was once in the state daily Granma.
Sánchez points out that her entire island nation has been virtually cut off from the Internet since the start of the unrest in Libya — most likely because the Castro family is worried that Cubans will start an uprising similar to those in the Arab world — and the following interview was interrupted several times due to disruptions the connectivity.  Read more at the realcubablog
Cuban government devalues convertible peso by 8%
March 14 - Cuba’s central bank devalued one of the island’s peso currencies to parity with the dollar in order to stimulate exports and production and improve the country’s balance of payments, the central bank said.
Cuba’s convertible peso, used by tourists and to buy dollars for foreign trade transactions, is now worth $1, down from about $1.08, according to a central bank statement published in the Communist party newspaper Granma.
The convertible peso remains pegged to 24 standard pesos, the currency in which most Cubans are paid. Tourists will still be charged 10 percent when exchanging dollars for convertible pesos, the bank said.  Bloomberg
When will the blockade against the Cuban people end?
March 13 - As I have always said, the only embargo that hurts the Cuban people is the internal embargo put in place by the Castro brothers against them.
While the Cuban people have had their food rationed for more than 50 years, the Castro brothers are celebrating another International Gourmet Festival for their foreign guests.
Cubans are considered second class citizens in their own country.
But you don't hear anyone asking the Castro brothers to lift that embargo! HYPOCRITES!
From Cuba's official media:
"Cuba to Host Int''l Gourmet Festival
As part of boosting its luxury tourism offers, Cuba will host the 3rd International Gourmet Festival, its most important meeting on gastronomy and hotels.
The event will be held April 6-8 at the Plaza America convention center in Varadero beach, 140 kilometers (87 miles) east of Havana.
Organizing committee members Rene Garcia, Raudel Garcia and Yubelsi Perez told reporters at a news conference at the Havana Golf Club that some 200 people from Argentina, Jamaica, South Africa and the United States are expected to participate in this important meeting.
The festival will consist of eight presentations and wine-tasting events, including new products from several countries, a surprise prepared by suppliers and a lecture on Cuba's tourism training system FORMATUR.
The meeting will be sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism (Mintur) and the entrepreneurial group Palmares.
" Cuba Headlines
Alan Gross sentenced to 15 years in jail
March 12 - State-run media say a Cuban court has found U.S. contractor Alan Gross guilty of crimes against the state and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
The court found that the 61-year-old Gross was working on a "subversive" program, paid for by the United States. The report was read out on the afternoon news. The Maryland native was arrested in December 2009 while working on a USAID backed project that aims to build democracy on the communist-run island.
The verdict comes a week after Gross's two-day trial in Havana, and is sure to sour relations between the two Cold War enemies even further.  WashingtonPost
How will the Obama administration respond? Probably by announcing another 7 airports that can have direct flights to Cuba.
First video of Dr. Biscet at home: "I'll not leave Cuba until it is free!"
Biscet after being released: "I will continue the fight"
March 11 - After being released from jail, Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet told the Efe news agency he would continue his non-violent resistance and his fight for human rights on the communist-ruled island.
Mr Biscet said he was grateful he had been able to leave prison in good mental and physical health.
"The Cuban authorities did not manage to make me mentally ill, as they were hoping to do," he told reporters at his home in the capital, Havana.
He is one of a group of more than 50 dissidents whose release was negotiated by the Catholic Church in Cuba.
Most of those freed agreed to go into exile in Spain, but Mr Biscet said he would remain in his home country.
"I have always lived in Cuba, I am from Cuba," he said.
He told reporters gathered at his home that he had never stopped fighting and that he had never strayed from the path of non-violent resistance, not even in prison. BBC
Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet has been released and is at home with his family
(Biscet at home with his family. Photo EFE)
March 11 - 7:30 PM Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet has been released from prison and is now at his home.
The information was reported by Marta Beatriz Roque via Twitter.
Welcome home Dr. Biscet!  May God bless you and your family!
Please sign the petition calling for the Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to Dr. Biscet


No Excuse for Lazy Journalism

Monday, March 14, 2011
In today's Wall Street Journal story on Alan Gross and USAID's Cuba program, reporter Nicholas Casey fell victim to lazy journalism.

Instead of researching the topic, Casey simply regurgitated (as fact) a common spin phrase of opponents of U.S. policy -- that USAID's Cuba programs are somehow "covert."

Yet, a simple Google search would have shown Casey that the details of these programs are just a click away on the Internet, as they are fully disclosed on USAID's website.
In other words, they are so "covert" that they are accessible to all free people (such as Casey) on the World Wide Web.

Sadly, Alan Gross is now in Castro's gulag for trying to extend that freedom to the Cuban people.

Stuck in Castro's Slum

Excerpts from a great interview in the Czech Position with famed Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez:

Q: What is lacking for a revolution similar to the one in Egypt taking place in Cuba?

A: In Cuba the situation is most like that in Libya rather than the other Arab countries that are undergoing unrest. Our system and country is also dependent on one charismatic and popular leader.

Q: But Raúl Castro is the complete opposite of his brother. Fidel got all of the charisma genes, leaving nothing for Raúl…

A: Of course that is why all Cubans that disagree with the regime secretly wish that "our beloved" El Commandante was not among us because Raúl would find it difficult to keep in charge. The older generation, despite not being satisfied with the regime, still respect Fidel for what he did when he took over. That is why they don't want to topple him, so as not to disappoint him. I'll give an example: Grandpa paid for our education; although he is now unintelligible and conservative, he is still our grandpa.

Q: A lot of people abroad feel that Cuba has probably the best possible system within Latin America and that its fall would lower the standard of living to that of Honduras or Ecuador.

A: I am sure that almost every Cuban would prefer to be at liberty to decide how to earn money, even if it was less, than to carry on living as a thrall to Castro's nobility.

Q: Isn't it better to be poor in Cuba than live in the favelas [slums] that are so ubiquitous in Latin America?

A: No, because there is always a chance of getting out of a slum. We don't have that. The former Brazilian president, Lula, came from the slums. So did several other South American leaders. Here it is more like a monarchy: Either you're part of Castro's family and their loyal lackeys or you don't have a chance. Moreover, Lula managed in just two terms to get 30 million people out of poverty. In 50 years, Castro's family hasn't managed to get the 11 million Cubans out of poverty at all. All he's managed to do is get rich while the rest of us flounder in destitution.

Our Thoughts and Prayers

Are with the people of Japan amidst their national tragedy.