Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fukushima situation remains "very grave"

Nearly three weeks after a devastating earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is no less stable. Radiation around the six reactor complex is high, steam and smoke is still issuing from at least one reactor and highly radioactive water is leaking into the sea. And there was further bad news on Monday after it was revealed that plutonium had been found in the vicinity of the atomic plant.

Media coverage

Media coverage outside of Japan has subsided over the last few days. News reporting of the events in Japan had initially concentrated on the earthquake and destructive tsunami but later shifted focus on the unfolding crisis at the Fukushima plant. But as a coalition of mainly western countries began to enforce a no fly zone over Libya, reports of the ongoing crisis in Japan has dwindled. 

In Asia there is greater concern with countries close to Japan concerned that they may be directly affected by a radioactive cloud coming from the nuclear plant. Exports have been halted and there have been signs of panic in some neighbouring countries as people stock up on a number of products. In China where news is carefully controlled, there have been instances of panic buying of salt as people rushed to purchase large quantities of salt. Rumours had spread through text messages and social media that the sea near to China had been affected and that iodised salt would help protect against the absorption of the radioactive isotope Iodine 131. In some areas salt ran out in shops and there were instances of profiteering [Guardian].

The panic eventually died down and many tried to return the vast quantities of salt they had purchased. Some had stocked up on enough salt to last years and in many cases had paid hugely inflated prices. But few were able to obtain refund. One Nanjing woman bought enough salt to last 4 years. "I regret it very much. I will never behave this silly anymore," she said.

Chinese authorities reacted by saying there was no immediate threat and police arrested several individuals said to be responsible for spreading false rumours. Police in Hangzhou said they arrested one man, detaining him for 10 days and imposing a fine of 500 RMB [$76]. But there was criticism that the authorities had failed to inform the public properly. "The panic [in China] perhaps could have been avoided if the governmentt had released enough reliable information," Qiu Liping, of Shanghai University said. "The public feels anxious because it doesn't receive enough scientific knowledge from day to day," the professor from the sociology department suggested [LA Times].

There were also instances of rumours spreading in the Philippines and other Asian countries. A fake text message purporting to come from the BBC, began to circulate around many Asian countries soon after the Fukushima incident began. The message suggested people take precautions against radiation spreading from the plant. "Asian countries should take necessary precautions," the message said. "If rain comes, remain indoors first 24 hours. Close doors and windows."

While this would be sensible advice, given there was a threat, the SMS also offered erroneous information. The text advised people to "Swab neck skin with betadine where thyroid area is, radiation hits thyroid first." [BBC]

Betadine is an antiseptic containing iodine. However it is used topically and would prove to be of no help in preventing the absorption of radioactive iodine. As rumours spread there were even reports that workers and school children were sent home early. It prompted the Philippines government to issue an official statement.

The disaster has also helped spread computer malware. As well as SMS scams, security firms have seen a rise in fake anti-virus and phishing attacks regarding the Japan earthquake and the tsunami disasters.

Poor information flow

The Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Co. [TEPCO] have been highly criticised for it failure in providing timely and accurate information concerning the situation at the Fukushima plant. Within hours of the earthquake the government revealed there was a problem with the nuclear plant. But it was only after a blast at reactor No. 1 on the 12th March and a second one at reactor No.3 on the 14th March that the seriousness of the situation began to emerge. The authorities blamed the blast on the ignition of hydrogen, vented from the reactor core to relieve pressure and said that only a minimal amount of radiation had leaked into the atmosphere.

A major fire at reactor No.4 was also reported. This had been out of service at the time of the earthquake but a failure in the generators which pumped water around spent fuel rods stored there had resulted in them becoming exposed after overheating and boiling the water dry. The fire was brought under control but there was a second fire the following day and it is believed that plumes of radioactive particles were sent soaring into the air.

While there was valid concern surrounding reactor No.4, the situation at reactor No.3 is far more worrying. Reactor No.3 was a MOX [Mixed Oxide] reactor which uses uranium mixed with plutonium. The blast which struck the installation sent debris hundreds of metres into the air, but the government said the core containment vessel had not been breached. However, yesterday it was revealed that traces of plutonium had been found in soil surrounding the plant from samples taken a week earlier. While it cannot be confirmed with absolute certainty, it seems likely that the blast at reactor No.3 at least partly breached the containment vessel sending highly radioactive particles into the surrounding area.

It was only by the third week on 25th March that the Japanese authorities conceded there might have been containment breaches at reactors 1, 2 and 3. Satellite photographs and video captured by a Ground Self-Defense Force helicopter showed extensive damage at the Fukushima plant. White vapor, possibly steam, could be seen emanating from the buildings of reactors 2, 3, and 4. The roof of the reactor No.2 building was shown to be badly damaged but was still intact. The reactor No.3 building was largely uncovered, following the hydrogen explosion over two weeks prior. The building at reactor No.4 was extensively damaged.

On Monday this week the Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission stated that it "assumed" melted fuel rods in unit 2 had released radioactive substances into cooling water which subsequently leaked out through an unknown route to the unit 2 turbine building basement. Despite the vague information and poor explanations as to what might be happening at the plant it is clear that radiation is leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi power station.

Rising radiation levels

Increased levels of radiation have been observed over a wide area around Fukushima and with each passing day there have been disturbing reports suggesting people take precautions. Last week it was announced that milk and spinach from the Fukushima prefecture showed increased levels of radioactivity [Reuters]. The government also advised that babies should not drink tap water as far south as Tokyo after radioactive levels were said to be above normal.

There is much confusion over what level of exposure is considered safe. However, what is clear is that radiation levels have risen. Some levels have fluctuated and dropped suggesting that the source of the radiation was radioactive iodine 131 which has a short half-life. But the discovery of plutonium and caesium outside the plant is more disturbing. These highly dangerous nuclear isotopes have far longer half-lives and if ingested the risks are very real. Of course it has to be stressed that these substances have only been found close to the plant. But the spread of water and food containing these substances poses a significant danger.

Experts are most worried about three radioactive substances, iodine 131, caesium 134 and caesium 137, which can cause various types of cancer years later.

Caesium 137 is of particular concern as it can stay in the environment and potentially cause havoc for hundreds of years. It takes 30 years for this contaminant to lose its power by half, what scientists refer to as a "half-life". At this rate, it would take at least 240 years for the contaminant to exhaust all its radioactivity.

"Caesium-137 can last for hundreds of years. If exposed, one can get spasms, involuntary muscular contractions and may lose the ability to walk. It also causes infertility. High doses will also damage a person's DNA and cause cancer later," said Lee Tin-lap, an associate professor at the Chinese University's School of Biomedical Sciences in Hong Kong. Caesium 134 has a half-life of 2 years. It would take about 20 years for it to become harmless.

Milk samples in Japan have been found to contain an average of 1,210 becquerels of iodine 131 per kilogram, well over the limit of 500 becquerels imposed in the EU. And Japanese spinach has been found with an average of 10,450 becquerels of iodine 131 per kilogram, more than 5 times the EU limit. The only mitigating factor is that iodine 131 has a half-life of 8 days, and take 80 days to lose all its radioactivity, assuming there is no fresh radioactive contamination [Reuters].

It has yet to be revealed which isotopes of plutonium have been found near to Fukushima, but some reports point to three tupes being discovered [CNN]. Plutonium-244 has a half-life of about 80 million years, just long enough for the element to be found in trace quantities in nature. Plutonium 239 meanwhile has a half-life of 24,100 years and plutonium 238 has a half-life of 88 years. Other isotopes include plutonium 240, plutonium 241 and plutonium 242 having half-lives of 65,000 years, 14 years and 37 million years respectively.


Radioactive material can be carried by tiny moisture droplets in the air. It can then be directly inhaled into the lungs, get washed down by rain into the sea and into soil and eventually contaminate crops, marine life and drinking water.

Radioactive substances are dangerous because they can cause changes or mutations in DNA, which may then cause cancer. While the human body can repair DNA changes or damage, a person is only safe if the repair process happens faster than the time it takes for the damaged or mutated DNA material to replicate.

Spread of radioactive particles

While the largest readings of radioactivity have only been measured in Japan other countries have observed slight rises in background radiation. The first country to observe a spike in radiation levels was Russia which saw minute increases in Vladivostok on the 15th March less than a week after the disaster began [Reuters].

On the same day it was reported that 'minute' amounts of radiation had been detected in Tokyo, including particles of iodine and caesium [Reuters]. Some reports suggested the levels were more than 23 times normal [MarketWatch]. The following day authorities said that levels were 10 times normal but that there was no risk to health [Reuters].

But by Sunday the 20th authorities reported radioactivity in spinach and milk and the WHO spokesman raised concerns saying that contaminated food in Japan was a "serious situation" and that it was "clearly not" a localised problem.

On Tuesday 22nd March Kyodo News quoted IAEA reports suggesting radiation was measured  at 1,600 times normal level 19 km from the Fukushima plant.

Out at sea the US navy had already detected rising levels and relocated its aircraft carrier the USS Ronald Reagan [CNN]. In addition they US military put out an advisory for American personnel not to enter within 80 km of the plant.

Around the world there have been 'minuscule' amounts of radioactivity detected. Many states across the United States have registered radioactivity and there are also reports of radioactive particle reaching parts of Europe.

In north-east China authorities also detected small rises in radioactivity but insisted there was no risk to health. China Radio International reported on Saturday that China had detected low levels of radioactive material iodine 131 in the air above Heilongjiang Province but said it was "harmless". On Monday this week the People's Daily said that the population were "unfazed" by the rising levels detected in Dongning, Raohe, Hulin and Fuyuan counties, which are about 1,100 km from Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Four counties in Heilongjiang were not included in the report published by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Officials meanwhile declined to tell China Daily the latest radiation levels in the four counties, the paper reported.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection insisted that the radiation posed no risk. The "Japanese nuclear incident does not affect the country's environment and public health", the ministry said.

In an attempt to further reassure the public a ministry spokesman also insisted that China's own nuclear power plants were safe. Under the headline 'China can guarantee safety of nuclear power facilities' Xinhua quoted a ministry official Tian Shujia as saying China's atomic plants were safe and the country would not shelve plans to complete 66 nuclear power plants by 2020. "There is a guarantee for the safety of China's nuclear power facilities and (China) will not abandon (its nuclear power plan) for fear of slight risks," the official said.

Outspoken voices

Amid the official statements there are a number of experts and campaign groups calling for a rethink of nuclear power. Some have also dismissed the information released by TEPCO, the IAEA and the Japanese authorities and suggested the situation is far worse than the public are being told.

One outspoken critic is Dr Christopher Busby has said the radiation being emitted by Fukushima may have exceeded that seen after the atom blast in Hiroshima [InfiniteUnknown / Rense]. Speaking on the Alex Jones show he raised concerns that although it is still an unfolding situation the global risks were significant [YouTube]. Dr Busby has spoken on several media outlets including Press TV and the BBC and even gone as far as describing authorities as being "criminally irresponsible" for downplaying the risks.

Trade winds and ocean currents could easily spread the plume of radioactive particles around the world, Dr Busby maintains. Some tracking has already been established [animation]. The spread of particles cannot be disputed. But it depends on the level of leakage. While some independent groups such as Greenpeace are starting to do their own measurements [map] the real threat and true level of contamination has yet to be properly assessed. The state of the reactors is also unclear, with contradictory statements from day to day from official sources.

Official statements

On Saturday for example Japan said radiation at the No.2 reactor was 1 million times normal but later retracted this and said they were only 100,000 times normal. [TEPCO Japanese / TEPCO English ] is now providing constant updates, but many believe the situation is far from being under control.

The pumping of water to keep the rods cool is suffering continued setbacks as power cannot be maintained. In addition rising radiation levels at the plant is making it too dangerous for those trying to stop those rods from overheating. The latest setback engineers face is the discovery of highly radioactive water in and around the turbine building at reactor two. Radiation detectors measured the level at 1,000 millisieverts per hour and as workers are allowed an exposure of 250 millisieverts a year, raised from 100 millisieverts before the crisis, they could only be in the contaminated area for 15 minutes before reaching the maximum dose [Guardian].

This is the latest summary released by TEPCO on Tusday 29th March.  An exclusion zone remains in place around the plant extending 20km in radius with a voluntarily evacuation zone for those local residents between 20km and 30km radius of the site periphery.

According to TEPCO off-site power has been connected to Units 1 through 6. Unit 1 seems stable with water containing neutron absorbing boric acid having been pumped into the reactor since 12th March. Sea water was injected on the 23rd March and replaced by freshwater on 25th March. On 24th March white smoke was seen rising from the top of the reactor building, though no explanation is given. On that same day lighting to the main control room was restored.

As regards Unit 2, TEPCO says the Reactor Core Isolation Cooling System failed on 14th March. Water injection began the same day and the company believes only a partial amount of the rods were exposed at this time.  However on 15th March an "abnormal sound" was heard near the suppression chamber and the pressure inside the chamber decreased afterwards. It was determined that something happened in the suppression chamber. While sea water injection to the reactor continued, TEPCO employees and workers from other companies not in charge of injection work started tentative evacuation to a safe location. Sea water injection to the reactor continued, the company states.

On 18th March, power restored to parts of the facility. White smoke was seen to rise from the unit on 20th but had decreased by 22nd March. The pumping of sea water continued until 26th when a switch to fresh water containing boric acid was initiated. Lighting to the control room was also restored.

An explosion occurred at Unit 3 on 14th March while water injection to the reactor was underway. Four TEPCO employees and 3 workers from other companies sustained injuries and were taken to hospital. Temperatures in the the water of the spent fuel pool rose and the spraying of water from helicopters with the support of the Self Defense Force was considered. That operation on March 16th was cancelled.  Pressure of the Suppression Chamber  temporarily increased, but currently is stable within a certain range, TEPCO says.

On March 20th, TEPCO say they were preparing to implement measures to reduce the pressure of the reactor containment vessel and partially discharge gases containing radioactive material to the outside environment. This was not implemented however though TEPCO says they are monitoring the pressure inside the reactor constantly. In order to cool the spent fuel pool, water was sprayed by helicopters on March 17th with the cooperation of Self-Defense Forces. Water spraying continued from the ground throughout the 17th and 21th March. On Monday 21st March light gray smoke was confirmed rising from the southeast side of the 5th floor roof of Unit 3. Staff were evacuated and the spraying of water continued the following day. By the Thursday 24th March smoke had "disappeared", TEPCO said. The spraying and injection of water has continued until today [29th March]. 

The problems at Unit 4 did not surface until 15th March when an explosive sound was heard and damage in the 5th floor roof of Unit 4 reactor building was confirmed. A fire continued to burn for at least two hours before being extinguished. However a second fire broke out on the 16th March and burned for at least 30 minutes. Water spraying was initiated at Unit 4 on the 20th March and has continued through the last week.

Unit 5 and 6 were shut down at the time of the earthquake but the cooling of the spent fuel rods was affected by power failures. On 19th March TEPCO started the Residual Heat Removal System Pump at units 5 and 6 to help cool the spent fuel pool. In order to prevent hydrogen gas from accumulating within the buildings, three holes were made in the roof of the reactor buildings.

On March 21st, 23rd to 27th, TEPCO say they detected technetium, cobalt, iodine, caesium, tellurium, barium, lanthanum and molybdenum in the seawater around the discharge canal of Units 1, 2, 3 and 4. On March 20th, 21st, 23rd to 27th, they also detected iodine, cesium, tellurium and ruthenium in the air collected at the site of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

The company announced that plutonium had been detected from soil samples at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station which had been collected on 21st and 22nd of March. TEPCO say the concentration level of plutonium detected was same as that of under usual environment conditions and "it is thought not to be harmful to human health". On March 28th, TEPCO also stated that they had detected radioactive materials contained in the puddles found in the turbine building of Unit 1 to 4.

Despite the detailed accounts of the work ongoing at the plant there is little explanation concerning the leakages that have evidently occurred. Explanations as regards radiation levels and their threat to health are also confused and contradictory at times. TEPCO say they will "continuously endeavor to securing [sic] safety, and monitoring [sic] of the surrounding environment." [TEPCO]

Situation "very grave"

This crisis is far from over and the Japanese prime minister has already expressed his concern.  Naoto Kan said his government "will tackle the problem while in a state of maximum alert". Meanwhile Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano described the situation as "very grave" [BBC / Wikipedia].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Friday, March 25, 2011

China bans smoking in public places

A ban on smoking  in public places has been implemented in many countries for several years. Britain placed restrictions on restaurants and bars in 2006 and the bans swept across much of Europe soon after. In the US legislation even outlaws smoking outdoors in certain areas. But some countries have been slow to adopt anti-smoking policies. However even in countries where smoking is popular, governments are forcing through new regulations.

China is the latest to pass new laws which will ban smokers from restaurants, bars and other public places. The move has been applauded by health campaigners, but in a country where more than a quarter of the population smoke, such legislation may prove to be extremely unpopular.

Some 40 years ago airlines distributed cigarettes free of charge during flights. Cigarettes were offered free to hotel guests and at meetings and conferences, filter-tipped cigarettes were a standard feature alongside writing pads, pencils and ashtrays. Even non-smoking cars were unheard of on trains.

But there has been a gradual tightening of restrictions, even if only voluntary. No smoking signs adorn the walls of subway stations, airports and on buses and trains. Air China banned smoking several years ago and even lighters and matches are banned, though that is perhaps more to do with a perceived security threat.

During the Olympics the government attempted to encourage restaurants and bars to adopt a no smoking policy with its Beijing Patriotic Health Campaign. However, despite signs in many establishments most patrons simply ignored the request to refrain from smoking. In fact it is not uncommon to find an ashtray sitting adjacent to a no smoking sign at a restaurant table.

More than 300 million people in China are regular smokers, most of them men, according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey conducted in 2009-2010. Increasingly, large numbers of women and teenagers have also taken up the habit. The survey, jointly conducted by the China Center for Disease Control, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, shows that seven out of 10 adults reported being exposed to secondhand smoke in a typical week.

Smoking is estimated to kill more than one million Chinese a year. They die from chronic respiratory ailments like tuberculosis and emphysema, and from cancers affecting the lungs, mouth, liver and stomach. Another report by Chinese and international experts led by China CDC deputy director Yang Gonghuan and Tsinghua professor Hu Angang projects that the deaths attributable to tobacco in China will rise to 3.5 million per year by 2030.

"That is an astounding number given that we know how to prevent tobacco-attributable death and disease," says Dr. Sarah England, the World Health Organization's (WHO) Tobacco Free Initiative Officer in China.

But despite the unsettling statistics the Chinese are reticent to kick the habit. While the West has glamorised smoking in films and through celebrity use, China's national leaders have given smoking a respectable image. Chairman Mao was a heavy smoker until his death at the age of 82. Deng Xiaoping, who preferred Panda cigarettes, died at 92. But smoking is not confined to the powerful elite. Many Chinese celebrities, artists and athletes can be seen smoking in public, and some Chinese associate wealth and sophistication with puffing a cigarette.

It has certainly been an uphill struggle to change public opinion. A smoke after a meal is still customary, and there is an oft quoted saying that "a smoke after dinner is better than life after death."

Every year as China celebrates the Spring Festival gifts are exchanged and it is not uncommon to see cigarettes being given. Such sales add to the massive tax revenue earned by the government. Tobacco is also a significant employer. Companies produce and sell more than 400 cigarette brands in the country, ranging from the high-end Zhonghua and Double Happiness to cheaper brands like Little Panda and Yellow Pagoda.

The tobacco industry has been so profitable it was able to pay the government $75.13 billion in taxes in 2009, said Zhang Xiulian, spokesman of the State Tobacco Monopoly Bureau.

While China does not require cigarette packaging to carry any warning about health hazards, they are occasionally displayed. But few take notice of such warnings.

"The tobacco industry's obstruction is the fundamental cause of ineffective tobacco control," says a report coauthored by Yang and Hu. However, in recent years, the Chinese government has banned tobacco companies from public advertising and from sponsoring sports and cultural events. It has also launched education campaigns in schools and in local media.

Five years ago China officially became a party to the World Health Organization's Framework Convention Tobacco Control. But aside a few piecemeal efforts to discourage the habit there have been few laws passed.

But at this year's 12th National Party Congress the Chinese government approved new legislation to outlaw smoking in public places [Xinhua]. But the All-China Women's Federation appears unimpressed.

"The government has not taken enough measures to restrict smoking in public areas. It is not just a question of weak regulations but also weak implementation," says a statement from the federation, a quasi-government group that lobbies for women's rights and has 40 million members.

According to the Health Ministry, new regulations will come into effect on 1st May banning smoking in public places including buses, restaurants and bars. However there are exceptions. Smoking will still be permitted in workplaces.

Previously, the Ministry of Health had only banned smoking in hospitals but these new regulations go further and include a ban on cigarette vending machines in public areas and a call for programmes to warn about the dangers of smoking. There are also proposals to restrict sales of tobacco near to schools [Xinhua]. Authorities have yet to announce how they will enforce the measures and whether there will be penalties for businesses or individuals breaking the rules.

While smoking at restaurants and bars is popular amongst the Chinese, expats in China have mixed opinions. Many see China as a place where they can freely enjoy a cigarette with their meal or drink. In fact in some bars it is difficult to spot a non-smoker. But there are many who welcome the ban. "I come home from bars smelling like smoke," says Feliz Lopez, a non-smoking 20 year old college student visiting Beijing from New York. "Restaurants and bars assume patrons smoke so there are ashtrays on tables, and there is no distinction between smoking and non-smoking sections." [BBC / CNN / Xinhua].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Quake damaged cables slow Asia's net

The magnitude 9 earthquake which struck off the coast of Japan two weeks ago caused widespread destruction which has yet to be assessed properly. The tsunami which followed washed away entire towns and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The death toll has risen to nearly 10,000 but there is at least another 13,000 missing and unaccounted for. Meanwhile engineers are battling to make safe the Fukushima nuclear reactor which was severely damaged and issued radioactive material over a large part of Japan, the risks of which are still being established. But the damage went beyond the shores of Japan with undersea telecommunications cables being severed.

The Internet is, by its very structure, fairly robust and routes traffic through different nodes should others fail. But much of the infrastructure is old and when major lines go down other parts of the system cannot cope with the extra traffic. It has meant that many parts of Asia have seen extremely slow Internet connection over the past two weeks.

Internet disruption

In Beijing and other cities across China many people began to see slow connections a few days after the quake. But the connection was not immediately made to the disaster which struck Japan. Chinese authorities often restrict the Internet, slowing traffic and blocking websites, so a reduction in the speed of the Internet was seen by some as a reaction to recent calls for a so-called Jasmine Revolution in China.

Internet services within China seemed to be less affected, but accessing websites based outside the country were fast becoming extremely unreliable. Expats in particular were beginning to notice problems. Comments on Twitter began to appear with users becoming exasperated. "Chinese Internet is slow like molasses in Alaska. Worried that I'll not even get a radio feed for tomorrow's Timbers FC match," one Twitter user observed around a week after the quake. With apparent blocks of GMail by the Chinese government, most people assumed that the slow Internet was due to government action. Using a VPN, which directs traffic to foreign servers, did not help. VPNs have been targeted by Chinese authorities and so this was also assumed to be a cause of the problem. But it has gradually become clear that the slow Internet has more to do with damage to undersea cables.

Repairs underway

There have been relatively few reports concerning the damage inflicted on the Internet by the earthquake. But on Thursday 24th March The Shanghai Daily reported that the problems seen over the last two weeks were due, at least in part, by the damage done to telecommunications cables. The paper said it may take up to 45 days for services to return to normal however.

A joint repair operation is under way to fix submarine cables a Chinese cable company said. The team consisting of a repair ship carrying 50 Chinese and foreign technicians left Shanghai port on Thursday for waters near Taiwan. They will attempt to reconnect three of a dozen cables on the seafloor using a robot. Other damaged cables will be repaired at the same time by teams from South Korea and Japan.

The repair work has been delayed due to concerns over aftershocks, the cable company said. China's telecommunication authority said only a small number of users on the mainland were still affected by the damage. But the experience described by many users across China tells a different story.

According to the KDDI, a Japanese telecommunications firm, the operation to reconnect the cables will not be straightforward. Robots capable of diving to 2,500m have been deployed in order to fix the cables but it might take months to complete. Robots have never been used for repairing cables before, only deploying them, so the challenge is much greater.

Extensive damage

It is thought that over 150,000 circuits are currently offline, and mobile networks have also suffered in these cuts. Pacnet, a Hong Kong-based cable-network operator, estimates about half the cables running across the Pacific are damaged thus affecting connections to the US. Because of redundancy that has been put in place, connectivity is possible but in a degraded state which for many means a much slower connection.

Many telecom operators and users were reporting some disruptions to the Internet as early as Monday 14th March. Partial restoration of services was accomplished by re-routing traffic over undamaged cables and via satellites.

About half of the existing cables running across the Pacific are damaged and "a lot of people are feeling a little bit of slowing down of Internet traffic going to the United States," said Bill Barney, chief executive of Pacnet. He declined to name the damaged cables operated by other companies, but said Pacnet's cable system connecting Japan to the US had not been damaged.

While the extent of the damage to undersea cables is still unclear and financial losses unknown, operators said they are undergoing an inspection and looking to expedite restoration. Pacnet aimed to repair two damaged segments of its East Asia Crossing network connecting Japan to other parts of Asia, like Taiwan and Hong Kong within five to seven days, Barney said. He played down concerns about any financial impact on Pacnet or regional telecom operators from the damaged cables. "It's in our business plan that our cables will break, typically you get cuts in cables anywhere from five to 10 times a year," Barney said.

Several other companies also reported problems. The Japanese telecom operator KDDI said one of its undersea cables between Japan and the US had been damaged by the earthquake and was unable to transmit any signals. A spokesman said the company did not know if the cable was cut or having connection problems.

Identifying the problems may take some time as in some cases the damage is a long way off shore. KDDI said it was making efforts to identify and address the problem but added that services were beginning to recover after the quake.

Pacific Crossing, a unit of Japan's NTT Communications Corp. that operates a cable network between Japan and the US, also reported issues with its infrastructure. The Pacific Crossing PC-1 W and PC-1 N parts of its network remained out of service due to the earthquake, the company said.

NTT Communications said some of its services for enterprises were partially unavailable in Japan's Tohoku region, but that for submarine cables between Japan, other parts of Asia and the US the company was using backup cable routes. As regards its telephone services NTT say that it had restored  90% of its affected exchange offices some two weeks after the quake [Telegeography / NTT].

PCCW Ltd., which provides broadband Internet in Hong Kong, said Internet traffic to some international destinations, especially the US, were experiencing slower speeds due to several damaged cables that land in Japan, but it did not release details. In a statement PCCW said the affected cables would be repaired in "the coming weeks."

The Taiwan operator Chunghwa Telecom Co. was one of the first to acknowledge problems with connectivity following the earthquake. On the same day an official said the earthquake had caused damage to an undersea cable near Kita on the eastern coast of Japan that belongs to the Asia Pacific Cable Network 2, owned by a consortium of 14 telecom operators led by AT&T.

China Telecom Corp., China's largest fixed-line operator by subscribers, was making emergency repairs to undersea cables damaged by the earthquake, Xinhua News Agency reported. The company said submarine fiber-optic cables connecting Japan and North America and a Pacific Crossing 1 cable near the city of Kitaibaraki, in Japan's northern Ibaraki Prefecture, were malfunctioning due to the earthquake.

Xinhua, citing an official from China Telecom, said the company had restored 65 gigabytes of outbound capacity, after the earthquake had disrupted 105 gigabytes of outbound Internet capacity and another 7 gigabytes of privately leased cable capacity.

Meanwhile China Mobile Ltd., the world's largest mobile carrier by accounts, said most of the company's services were operating normally despite a surge in calls to Japan, Xinhua reported. Another telecom operator China Unicom Ltd. said most of its circuits had been repaired but cited connection problems with the network of Japan's NTT Communications.

Several companies said they avoided significant service disruptions by rerouting data traffic, including South Korean telecom operator KT Corp., which said a cable that is part of the Japan-US Cable Network was cut.

In the Philippines, Bayan Telecommunications Inc. said the earthquake had disrupted some of its digital subscriber line services but said they would normalize services within a day.

Some operators were apparently unaffected by the disaster which befell the region . A spokeswoman for Australian operator Telstra Corp. said none of the company's undersea cable infrastructure was damaged.

Rolling blackouts

In Japan itself the problems are further compounded by rolling electricity blackouts. Data centres have been hard hit with some being forced to shut down or run on expensive diesel generators for the time the power is off. If a data centre goes down this can be a major problem for websites hosted there. For anyone using search engine optimisation it can result in rankings being ditched by Google as it constantly crawls the web. If it finds a website offline for a period of time Google may delete the associated ranking. This poses a problem as it can take much time, effort and even money to bring those rankings back to where they were before. The Japanese economy has already been severely affected by the after effects of the earthquake and tsunami. Some industrial production has slowed or even halted and electronics markets are particularly concerned at present. For companies promoting themselves on the Internet, a downed website and extra costs is the last thing any impacted company needs [Seoconsult].

Previous Internet failures

It is not the first time that the Internet and telecommunications have been disrupted due to earthquakes. In December 2006 a massive 7.1 magnitude quake off the coast of Taiwan caused disruption to Asia's Internet [tvnewswatch - Dec 2006]. It took at least a month before the damage was repaired [tvnewswatch - Jan 2007]. In late 2008 millions were cut off after a cable was severed in the Mediterranean Sea [tvnewswatch - Dec 2008]. The cause of the failure in that case and another earlier in the year was not immediately identified [tvnewswatch - Jan 2008].

Most international Internet data and voice phone calls are transmitted as pulses of light via the hundreds of undersea fiber optic cables that crisscross the globe. The cables, which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, are typically owned by consortia of telecom companies, who share costs and capacity. While the clusters of glass fibers are enclosed in protective material, they remain vulnerable to undersea earthquakes, fishing trawlers and ship anchors. There are also many choke points around the globe where a number of key cables converge.

As the number of people using the Internet grows there is an ongoing struggle to provide the much needed capacity. Demands for faster speeds has also increased the stress on an over-saturated network. When significant parts of that network fails it forces traffic to be rerouted, and while a connection may be maintained it may not be as reliable or as speedy as before. In China the Internet is continually being disrupted by government censors. The cutting of cables to the outside world has, for many, compounded the problem to the extreme.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Browser wars heat up between IE, Firefox & Chrome

The so-called browser wars have been rekindled this week with the launch of IE9 and Firefox 4, but both face stiff competition from Google's own Chrome browser.

Those with Chrome need do nothing in terms of upgrades as it updates automatically. For IE and Firefox users they must make a specific effort to upgrade, though they may be prompted by their browser software.

But what are the differences between the top three and is it worth switching? For some users, a browser is just a browser. But there are issues of speed, security and usability.

A look at IE9

On downloading and installing IE9, well one may as well at least try these things despite being a convert to Chrome, the first thing of note was the long installation time which involved a full restart of the computer. Some thirty minutes later and another 3 minutes waiting for the browser to launch, IE9 users are first confronted with a welcome screen.

"The first thing you'll notice when you open Internet Explorer 9 is the simplified design," a message reads. Well, that is one design feature that is apparent. But the first thing any user of Chrome will notice is how long the browser took to launch. While it actually took only around three minutes from a cold start, it felt like an eternity. On a subsequent cold start IE9 took less than 30 seconds, but even that is slow compared to the competition.

There is no prompt to import favourites, and of course no syncing with Google's cloud in this regard, since of course it is not Chrome. The address bar too is a step back in time for those used to Chrome's omnibar in which suggestions, including recent searches and favourites, are instantly displayed.

IE9 was launched in the last few days to a great fanfare, and 2.35 million downloads were recorded in the first 24 hours of its launch [BBC]. But Microsoft has some stiff competition from other web browsers.

Within days Mozilla unveiled its new Firefox 4 browser which saw nearly 5 million installations in a day [CNET / BBC].

While Google Chrome is used by only 13% of the world's Internet users, it is fast catching up. IE for all versions still accounts for more than 43% while Firefox has a user base of some 29%, but Chrome is growing while IE use is dropping and Firefox remains fairly static.

Technical comparisons

There are several major factors which affect users; the interface, speed, security and privacy, standards support and extra features. In terms of the interface the main three browsers are fairly similar. While Google was the first to create a minimalist feel, both IE and Firefox have emulated this design aspect. All have slightly different ways of facilitating the display of tabs, favourite apps and so on. Much of this is about personal preference however. The switch from any system may take some getting used to.


As regards speed, Chrome still leads the way though some tests show the others are catching up or are slightly ahead. In Javascript tests conducted by PC Mag there were varying results with IE9 winning the SunSpider benchmark test, Firefox winning its own Kraken test and Chrome taking first place in Google's V8. The results of the Sunspider benchmark test were not much different and IE showed a massive improvement on its predecessor. IE9 scored 246 ms, Firefox 280 ms and Chrome 10 283 ms while Chrome 11 beta scored 537 ms. IE8 failed altogether in Mozilla's Kraken test and Chrome came second being some 2,000 milliseconds slower than Firefox's 6,760 with IE9 trailing at more than 15,000 milliseconds. Chrome 11 beta came in a little slower still at 12,233 ms compared to Chrome 10's 8,171. Google's own V8 test showed Chrome 10 as being way out in front of Firefox 4 and IE9 which came 2nd and 3rd respectively. Chrome 11 beta gave a lower score than the stable version 10 but still beat Firefox 4 and IE9.

Start-up times showed Chrome to be the fastest, both in cold start-ups and warm start-ups. While memory, age and other factors will affect the start-up for different users, PC Mag's test showed Chrome 10 to be the fastest with a launch from cold in a blistering 2.6 seconds with IE9 launching in 3.6 seconds and Firefox 4 trailing at 6 seconds.

Standards support

Chrome still leads in terms of standards support according to PC Mag. The Acid3 test still fails in Internet Explorer. In the past it was a complete failure, but at least it now scrapes a reasonable 95/100. Only Chrome tops the chart with a 100% score. Moving on to the HTML5 test, and IE9 still under performs other browsers. Google's Chrome 10 hits in at 288 plus 5 bonus points from a possible 400 [Chrome 11 beta scores slightly less at 278 and 13 bonus points]. IE9 fairs badly scoring a poor 130 with 5 bonus points. Firefox 4 meanwhile scores 240 with 9 bonus points.

Privacy and Security

Security is an aspect of Web browsing that no one can afford to ignore. While all three browsers offer excellent tools like malware blocking and anti-phishing, Chrome has an edge with its full code sandboxing for the browser. This means the browser code can't mess with other areas of your computer. IE has partial sandboxing, with its protected mode, but only time will tell whether IE9 will prove to be as secure as Microsoft claim.

All three browsers include an "over the shoulder" privacy mode, which hides a browsing session from any future users of the computer in question. In Chrome the easy to launch incognito mode allows a user to browse without any data being stored in the computer

IE has a Tracking Protection feature which allows users to block tracking sites, such as DoubleClick, from following a users Web surfing history and tracking them.

User experience

Much of the above is technobabble for the average user. It is the using of the browser which counts. Again, being so used to Chrome, IE9 feels like a step back into the dark ages. One need only type 'yo' in Chrome's omnibar before it suggests YouTube and even one's own channel, given you've been there before. If already signed into Google it is literally one or two key strokes away. With IE one first had to type almost the entire phrase of YouTube, and even then it only returned a Google search rather than a suggested URL in a drop-down box. Then a further click was needed to access the site itself followed by the need to sign-in. All time wasting, something Chrome dispenses with.

Of course, IE9 learns from a users interaction. One can click an option to send keystrokes to Google, thus allowing instant suggestions. But is is very much a situation of starting from a clean slate.

The clean look is perhaps a step forward, though there will many who will wonder where all their add-ons have gone, such as the Google toolbar. They can be reactivated, but by default they are not displayed.

No syncing in IE

Both Chrome and Firefox offer syncing of bookmarks, passwords, and preferences, which lets users keep customizations when moving between different computers with the browser installed. Chrome's version is easier to setup up, requiring nothing more than a Gmail login.

Firefox, however, can also sync open tabs, history, and even tabs, so you can pick up where you left off when switching computers, or even move to a mobile device running Firefox or Firefox Home for iOS. Firefox does not facilitate the syncing of extensions or themes, while Chrome does. IE9 despite all the songs of praise by Microsoft does not offer any syncing.

For users with only one computer this is perhaps not an issue. But for those flipping between desktops at work and home as well as personal laptops, syncing is a massive time saver.

Extensions & tools

All three browsers offer extensibility through extensions, a capability most often associate with Firefox. Chrome offers over 10 thousand extensions in its gallery, but Firefox's 5,000-plus can more drastically change the operation and look of the browser. Chrome also possesses advantages over the others. Its extensions do not require a restart of the browser, they update automatically, and a user can choose whether they should run when in privacy [incognito] mode. Internet Explorer's extensions mostly fall into the Accelerator, Web Slice, Search provider, and toolbar categories, but there are a surprising number in many categories at Microsoft's IE Add-ons site.


Some 2.35 million people downloaded IE9 in the first 24 hours after its release though Microsoft are still fighting a losing battle in persuading some users to upgrade from earlier versions of the browser, and even its operating system. IE9 is not supported by Windows XP, something Microsoft want users to abandon. In February this year some 12% of the world population was still using IE6. Although this has fallen some 9% from 2010, IE6 is still popular in many countries.

In China more than 36% of the country's Internet users are still using IE6 and the most common operating system is XP. Part of the problem is that many people do not wish to change a system they are familiar with. But there are also practical issues. Many banks in China do not support IE7 or IE8 for online services. Even those using other browsers such as Firefox and Chrome have to switch back to IE6 for their financial transactions. Microsoft have set up a special page to show the use of IE6 and to encourage people to make the shift.

There are security issues affecting older browsers, and although Microsoft attempt to patch the holes as quickly as possible, the older operating systems and browsers are laying many people open to phishing and other cyberattacks.

It is a matter of opinion amongst some, but Google's Chrome browser is widely seen as being one of the most secure and safest browsers. Chrome updates automatically and often requires only a restart of the browser rather than the whole machine.

For many converts to Firefox and Chrome, Microsoft's new sparkly browser will fail to impress and is likely rust away on most people's desktops.

Chrome remains the clear winner

All three browsers are fast, trim, and up-to-date with standards support, and all are good choices. However while IE9 will run on Vista it works best on Windows 7. In addition many cannot make the choice since IE9 will not run on many other operating systems at all. Chrome and Firefox both work in all major operating systems; Linux, Mac, and Windows back to XP.

Chrome's Instant feature, built-in Flash and PDF reader, auto-updating, and great speed give it some serious advantages over the other two main contenders. Its full sandboxing for security further tips the odds in its favour, making it the best of the big three browsers to release in the last week or so.

Some users have complained that the RealPlayer video download feature fails to work in Chrome since the release of version 10, though it still works in IE and Firefox. But this aside, Chrome still stands out on top.

After a painfully slow and clunky 30 minutes of playing with IE9 I was bored and it went back into the box. Closing the program was a lot faster than its launch time [ZDNet].

Google setting the standards

Google has brought many innovations to the web and to the browser. Such moves have been copied and emulated, but few have been as refined as Google's offerings. Pushing yet another benchmark Chrome 11 beta was released on Wednesday and offers web developers the ability to build in speech to text support.

In a blog post Google says the new API allows developers to give web apps the ability to transcribe voice to text. When a web page uses this feature, a user may simply click on an icon and then speak into the computer's microphone. The recorded audio is sent to speech servers for transcription, after which the text is typed out.

It is not yet clear where Google will go with this, but it could prove to be useful in may applications. In conjunction with Google Docs and a fast Internet connection this API could make the composing of documents or taking notes that much faster. There are still problems with voice recognition however. A test page [obviously only usable in Chrome 11 beta] produced a few bizarre results. "Google Chrome is fantastic" returned "Google Chrome is a friend"!

Near enough perhaps, but certainly room for improvement. The browser wars certainly aren't over yet.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Monday, March 21, 2011

Japan’s GDP may slow, World Bank says

Japan's real GDP growth will slow, the World Bank has said in its assessment of the situation following a massive earthquake and tsunami which devastated a large part of the country. However a report released on Sunday suggests that as reconstruction begins there will be a gradual recovery towards the middle half of 2011.

The World Bank in its latest East Asia and Pacific Economic Update says it may be too early to make a full assessment, but Japan's past experience suggests an accelerated reconstruction effort, and the short term impact on the economies of developing East Asia is likely to be limited.

The risks of climate change and natural disasters complicate East Asia's quest for continuous rapid growth, the report says. However every natural hazard does not automatically lead to catastrophic loss of life and property. The recent tragic earthquake in Japan with a magnitude 9, the most powerful in the country's recorded history, and the subsequent tsunami are a stark reminder of the dangers from natural hazards and the key role of careful and thorough investments the authorities have made in seismic safety and emergency preparedness. The extent to which countries in the region will be affected economically will vary and depend on factors that will only become clear in the coming weeks.

Basing its assessment on past history, the World Bank says real GDP growth will likely be negatively affected through mid-2011. Although growth should though increase as reconstruction efforts accelerate, this may take as long as five years, the organisation warns. While it is too early to estimate accurately, the cost of the damage is likely to be greater than the damage caused by the 6.9 magnitude Kobe earthquake in 1995. Private insurers will likely bear a relatively small portion of the cost. This will leave most of the reconstruction costs to households and the government.

The temporary growth slowdown in Japan will have only a modest short-term impact on the region, the World Bank asserts. After the Kobe earthquake, Japan's trade slowed for only a few quarters before it began to recover. Within a year, imports had recovered fully and exports had rebounded to 85% of pre-quake levels.

But this time around there is widespread disruption to production networks. This has especially hit the automotive and electronics industries which could pose problems, at least in the medium term.

Japan is a major producer of parts, components, and capital goods which supply East Asia's production chains. In Thailand, exporters of cars report that current supplies of components imported from Japan will likely last through April. Some plants in Japan are already experiencing shortages in parts sourced from the northeast. In electronics, Korean firms are facing higher prices for memory chips, in part because Japan accounts for up to 36% of global production and that production is now disrupted. Prices have already risen by more than 20% in some categories. China and the Philippines are more connected to developments in Japan than the rest of East Asia and there have been reported price hikes of memory chips in China [BBC].

In the short to medium-term, energy producers, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, could benefit from higher energy prices, as Japan begins to rebuild and tries to close the energy gap caused by the loss of nuclear capacity. Longer-term demand for fossil fuels could remain high as other nations revisit plans for their nuclear electricity production.

The situation still remains volatile however as the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant has yet to be made entirely stable [FT].

The World Bank provides only a preliminary analysis on the implications for the region with a focus on trade and finance. It does however, points to uncertainties and ongoing challenges posed by the unfolding situation involving nuclear reactors in Japan. As the country picks up the pieces following the devastating earthquake and tsunami markets around the world will be strongly focused on Japan in the coming weeks [Guardian].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Growing human cost in Japan

Lost life after lost life, the growing human cost of the magnitude 9 earthquake and massive tsunami is becoming clearer by the day. Official figures suggest more than 14,000 may be either dead or missing, but it may be many days before the full picture emerges.


Town and villages all along the north-east coast of Japan have been wiped from the map leaving either a flat wasteland or piles or rubble. Japanese troops and rescue workers sift through the wreckage daily. Cars, boats, piles of wood and twisted metal are strewn across vast stretches of land. Sniffer dogs find the occasional survivor, but search and rescue teams are mostly finding the dead. Every day more victims are being dragged from the rubble and being boxed up in anonymous coffins, adding to a growing statistic [BBC]. Many people may not be found. Thousands are believed to have been washed out to see as the massive tsunami retreated.

For those who have survived, there is not the despair that might be expected. Many speak of not being able to locate loved ones, missing mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. But there are few tears. No images of distress or grief. Many may still be in shock. The grief may come as days pass and it becomes clear that their relatives and friends will never come home.

Few miracles

There are miracle stories. One 83 year old woman spoke of her escape from the tsunami by cycling away on her bicycle [CNN]. A 60 year old man Hiromitsu Shinkawa was discovered clinging to the roof of his house more than 15 km out to sea [BBC]. Shinkawa told his rescuers that the tsunami had hit as he and his wife returned home to gather some possessions after the earthquake, and that his wife was swept away. She is still missing.

Most had not been able to out run the tsunami however. Those that survived had made it to higher ground or to the roofs of stronger buildings, or else they had been beyond the reach of the tsunami which swept up to 10 km inland.

Some had been out of town and return to their shattered homes later. Little was left. No possessions, no car, and in so many cases, no family. But there is a resolve to carry on and to rebuild.

Altruism in face of adversity

Amid the rubble there are no signs of looters. In so many similar disasters around the world, criminals take advantage of the situation and plunder the homes of the victims. But this is Japan, a country proud of its low crime rate and high morals. Despite shortages of supplies customers queued patiently for hours outside the few shops open in quake stricken Sendai. There have been no reports of stealing or looting, even from amongst the rubble.

The Japanese are held together in solidarity and even news crews are offered a warm reception with offerings of food despite the scarce supplies. The contrast of altruism even in such adversity has surprised much of the western media who are more used to reporting on the looting and chaos seen in places like Chile after its massive earthquake or in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in the US [Telegraph].

Nuclear fears

Despite the positive spirit amongst many, there is a growing concern over the threat from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. Many people are frustrated at the lack of information concerning radiation levels and some believe their government is not telling them the whole story.

While many foreigners are already beginning to leave the country, but for many Japanese stranded in the devastated regions in the north-east of the country there is nowhere to run. Authorities have told people to stay indoors for those living up to 30 km from the plant, but even those well outside the exclusion zone are making the decision to leave.

In Tokyo radiation levels have risen to more than 20 times above normal on occasion. It has cause concern amongst many residents who have virtually stripped stores of food and supplies. Petrol stations are running short on fuel and there have been blackouts across the city as the country struggles to provide enough power.


Many countries have advised their nationals to leave the country including Britain who have already laid on special buses to transport people out of the Sendai region. The British government is also chartering planes to fly from Tokyo to Hong Kong to help Britons who want to leave Japan.

The Foreign Office said there would be no charge for Britons "directly affected" by the tsunami, but a charge of £600 would otherwise apply. A statement said, "We continue to advise against all non essential travel to Tokyo and north eastern Japan. British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area." [BBC]

For those in nearby countries there is no such advice. However, expats in Beijing have been told to continue to monitor the situation closely. "We are receiving a number of enquiries about the nuclear incident in Japan and radiation levels in China.  We are following developments closely and continually assessing our advice to British nationals," the FCO said in a statement.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan's unfolding nuclear crisis

Five days after a magnitude 9 earthquake and a massive tsunami ravaged Japan, the country is still trying to pick up the pieces and wade through the debris in the search for survivors. By Wednesday the official death toll had risen above 10,000 but authorities admitted the number of dead was likely to rise significantly. Towns and villages all along the north-east coast of Japan have been virtually wiped off the map and more than half a million people are living in temporary shelters.

Japan is not only reeling from the humanitarian disaster and the widespread destruction. The economy has been severely affected and on Monday’s open the Nikkei dropped significantly with record falls of nearly 14% seen on Tuesday. This is despite massive injections of cash from the Japanese government. Meanwhile authorities are struggling to contain a growing nuclear emergency after explosions, fires and radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiishi nuclear power plant.

Unfolding nuclear crisis

While the humanitarian disaster is on a massive scale, media coverage has mainly focused on the events unfolding at the Fukushima reactors. On the day of the earthquake there was some heightened concern after authorities admitted there may be some damage at the Fukushima plant. But it was at 15:36 the next day that the world’s attention became fixed on the nuclear plant after a large explosion tore through the building housing No.1 reactor. Television pictures showed the building shrouded in a cloud of grey smoke which later dissipated to reveal much of the housing stripped away.

Authorities blamed the explosion on the ignition of hydrogen gas that had built up as they attempted to relieve pressure inside the containment vessel housing the fuel rods. It had emerged that at least one reactor was at risk of a possible meltdown as the fuel rods were at least partially uncovered. A race was on to cool the rods and to relieve pressure at the plant.

After the explosion at reactor No.1 it was announced that problems also existed at reactor No.3. Power failures in back-up generators had resulted in an inability to keep water flowing around the fuel rods and on Monday 14th a massive explosion occurred at 11:15 sending a huge cloud of smoke some 600 metres into the air above reactor No.3. This raised greater concern amongst some observers as this was a MOX reactor, using a Uranium-Plutonium mix.

However, authorities insisted that radiation detected outside the plant was due to gases vented from the reactor core which had some traces of radioactive elements. Officials insisted that there had not been a core breach and only a partial meltdown may have occurred. But with a further blast at reactor No.2 at 06:14 on Tuesday and a fire in No.4 reactor where spent fuel rods had been stored, concerns amongst the general population were mounting as to how serious the situation was getting.

Already the authorities had begun to evacuate nearly quarter of a million people in the area surround the plant and declared an exclusion zone extending at least 20 km. However, a BBC correspondent found himself stopped more than 60 km from the power station as early as Sunday. A no fly zone of some 30 km was also put in place and journalists were told by local police to evacuate from the area.

On Wednesday, Yukiya Amano, from the IAEA, said there was the possibility of damage to the bottom part of primary containment vessel at no 2 reactor. And in a confusing delivery of statistics the Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said radiation levels had risen, but were still not a major threat to the population at large.

Radiation levels

In his address Edano initially said levels around Fukushima measured at 800 milli Sieverts [mSv], however this was a mistake and should have been micro Sieverts [μSv]. The reported measurements of radioactivity levels near the plant have fluctuated over recent days and hit levels of 4 mSv or 4,000 μSv. There have been reports that rising radiation levels in several towns and cities across Japan. On Tuesday the Kyodo news agency reported that radiation levels in the city of Maebashi, 100 km NW of Tokyo, and 200 km SW of Fukushima, were up to 10x normal levels [Reuters]. In Tokyo itself there were reports of a minute rise in radiation levels and that radioactive iodine and caesium had been identified, but authorities stressed there was no cause for concern [Reuters].

It is not just Japanese authorities that have measured a rise in radiation. On Monday CNN reported that 17 US navy personnel had been decontaminated after becoming exposed to radiation levels during rescue missions. The USS Ronald Reagan which had been stationed off the coast some 160 km north-east of Fukushima also reported measuring slight increases and moved their position. On Tuesday, two US bases issued advisories to troops after low level radiation was detected at Yokosuka & Atsugi bases in Kanagawa, Japan. The US military recommended personnel & families take precautions according to reports.

The US Department of Defense said Americans on the two military bases south of Tokyo were advised to stay indoors as much as possible. "While there was no danger to the public, Commander, Naval Forces Japan recommended limited precautionary measures for personnel and their families on Fleet Activities Yokosuka and Naval Air Facility Atsugi, including limiting outdoor activities and securing external ventilation systems as much as practical," a US Navy statement said [Fox News].

Russia has also raised concern  after very small increases to background radiation levels elevated. In Vladivostok, a city of 600,000 people some 800 km north-west of Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, radiation levels rose to 13 micro-roentgens an hour at 04:00 GMT before falling back to 12 later in the day. According to a spokeswoman for the regional emergencies ministry, up to 30 micro-roentgens an hour is considered safe.

The reported rises in radiation levels, however slight, has prompted many people to buy up stocks of potassium iodide tablets which can saturate the body with iodine making the absorption of radioactive iodine less likely and thus help protect the thyroid gland from the effects of radiation.

Pharmacies in Vladivostok said they had run out of potassium iodide tablets and there is said to be similar situation in pharmacies across Japan [Reuters]. Even as far away as the US sales of the pills have soared with many fearful radiation from the Fukushima plant could reach American shores [LA Times]. The risks may be low for those in the US, and there are also side effects for those taking potassium iodide tablets. In low doses people may see outbreaks of acne, loss of appetite, or upset stomach. More severe side effects which may require medical assistance include fever, weakness, unusual tiredness, swelling in the neck or throat, mouth sores, skin rash, nausea, vomiting, stomach pains, irregular heartbeat, numbness or tingling of the hands or feet, or a metallic taste in the mouth. Ironically, some of these symptoms are similar to radiation poisoning.

Confusing statistics

Geiger counter sales have also risen in the wake of the nuclear emergency. But understanding the measurements is not easy. In his book Comments on the Society of the Spectacle the writer Guy Debord argues that the confusing use of opaque measurements set out to confuse and hide the truth.

“Nuclear practices, both military and civil, necessitate a far higher dose of secrecy than in other fields -- which already have plenty, as we already know. To make life -- that is to say, lying -- easier for the sages chosen by the system's masters, it has discovered the utility of changing measurements, to vary them according to a large number of points of view, and refine them, finally juggle them, according to the case, with several figures that are hard to convert. Hence, to measure radioactivity levels, one can choose from a range of units of measurement: curies, becquerels, roentgens, rads alias centigrays, and rems, not forgetting the humble millirads, and sieverts which are worth 100 rems. This evokes the memory of the subdivisions of British currency, the complexity of which foreigners could not quickly master, back in the days when Sellafield was still called Windscale.”

Published in 1988, the short 100 page booklet is perhaps a precursor to the conspiracy theories now being bandied about on the Internet. Whether deliberate or through ineptness, authorities have failed to calm people’s fears concerning the risks posed by the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Greenpeace have criticised the slow flow of information and some nuclear experts have thrown doubt on the accuracy of official information issued. Some have pointed to the pattern of secrecy and cover-ups employed in other nuclear accidents in Japan. "It's impossible to get any radiation readings," said John Large on Sunday. An independent nuclear engineer who has worked for the UK government and been commissioned to report on the accident for Greenpeace International said, "The actions of the Japanese government are completely contrary to their words. They have evacuated 180,000 people but say there is no radiation. They are certain to have readings but we are being told nothing." He said a radiation release was suspected "but at the moment it is impossible to know. It was the same at Chernobyl, where they said there was a bit of a problem and only later did the full extent emerge." [Guardian / Telegraph].

Figures did emerge slowly, but there is still confusion amongst the general public. "What we are seeing follows a clear pattern of secrecy and denial," said Paul Dorfman, co-secretary to the Committee Examining Radiation Risks from Internal Emitters, a UK government advisory committee disbanded in 2004. "The Japanese government has always tended to underplay accidents. At the moment the Japanese claims of safety are not to be believed by anyone. The health effects of what has happened so far are imponderable. The reality is we just do not know. There is profound uncertainty about the impact of the accident."

Even when radiation levels have been released different scales have been reported. Japanese authorities have tended to issue radiation levels measured in Sieverts, though there has been repeated confusion with micro being replaced by milli. Russian authorities in Vladivostok spoke of a 1 micro-roentgen per hour increase in radiation while the US military at bases in Japan and on board naval ship spoke only of slight changes and only one report referred to a 0.5 rem increase. Meanwhile, further muddying the issue one resident in Tokyo began broadcasting a video stream of a geiger counter which showed a CPM reading of 16 [twitpic].

Looming disaster?

Most experts do not believe the crisis will be as bad Chernobyl which was a different type of reactor. The accident which occurred there was also different. In Chernobyl there was an controlled chain reaction and a fire which burned for days sending vast quantities of radioactive material across western Europe.

So far radiation levels appear to have been contained with authorities saying dangerous radioactive levels only existing in the close proximity to the plant itself. The bigger danger is if any of the reactor cores were to be exposed, or a full meltdown were to occur. The fires that have affected reactor No.4 is of greater concern at present since it appears spent fuel rods have been involved and sent some radioactive particles into the air.

A meltdown poses different risks. Should workers remaining at the planting fail to keep the fuel rods cool, the nuclear material could melt and breach the core of the containment vessel. Should this occur there is there possibility the material might enter the water-table and create even greater hazards.


There are some scaremongers who suggest a core breach has already happened, that authorities are lying about actual radiation risks and that a meltdown may be occurring.

One such protagonist is Alex Jones who hosts a radio show from Austin, Texas. Jones who also runs a website called Infowars is well known for his outspoken criticism of governments and corporations who he accuses of covering up everything from poisoning the water supply with fluoride, swamping television networks with propaganda and of attempting to establish a New World Order.

There are some who have pointed to the so-called supermoon as being a cause of the Japanese earthquake. The moon is at its closest approach for nearly 20 years on March 19th and some are pointing to the coincidence of a similar occurrence in 2005 which followed the Boxing Day tsunami in late 2004 [NY Daily News].

"There were SuperMoons in 1955, 1974, 1992 and 2005," meteorologist Mark Paquette says. On his blog he says previous lunar perigees did coincide with extreme events but did not commit himself to a mega-event happening as a result of this years astronomical event.

Others were far more convinced. One user posted a video on YouTube on March 8th which pointed to her prediction that a planetary alignment might precipitate a massive disaster between the 11th and 15th March.

Beyond the conspiracy theories there has also been evidence of increased concern amongst other nations which have called for radiation checks on imported goods from Japan. Singapore, South Korea and China have all announced the checking of products originating in the country. Air China has also cancelled many flights to Tokyo and Chinese authorities have ordered that no planes may stay in Japan overnight. Other airlines have redirected operations to Osaka [Reuters].

Future of nuclear power

Internationally there has been heightened concern over the safety of the nuclear industry. Many countries are evaluating their own nuclear policy with some saying they will carry out safety tests.

Others are resolute in their continued nuclear energy policy despite the potential risks. Three years ago the British government gave the go ahead to build a new generation of nuclear power stations [BBC]. And the new coalition government has reaffirmed its commitment. Whilst nuclear power would reduce carbon dioxide emissions, environmental campaigners remain concerned the danger from nuclear waste management and risks of an accident outweigh any benefits. The concerns over safety is heightened after 4 major accidents in the short history of nuclear power.

Britain was the first country to suffer from a nuclear accident when a fire caused a major radioactive leak at Windscale in Cumbria. The Windscale fire, which struck the atomic plant on 10th October 1957, destroyed the core and released an estimated 750 terabecquerels (TBq) (20,000 curies) of radioactive material into the surrounding environment, including Iodine-131, which is taken up in the body by the thyroid. Consequently milk and other produce from the surrounding farming areas had to be destroyed. In 1979 a partial meltdown occurred at Three Mile Island in the US, and although there was no leak of radioactivity, the clean-up was slow and costly and resulted in a protracted decline in the public popularity of nuclear power, exemplifying for many the worst fears about nuclear technology.

Those fears were realized seven years later when a major accident at a Russian nuclear power plant at Chernobyl resulted in widespread radioactive contamination and many deaths. A 2005 report prepared by the Chernobyl Forum, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization (WHO), attributed 56 direct deaths (47 accident workers, and nine children with thyroid cancer), and estimated that there may be 4,000 extra deaths due to cancer among the approximately 600,000 most highly exposed and 5,000 among the 6 million living nearby. In fact even some twenty years on parts of Britain are still affected by the effects of Chernobyl [Guardian / BBC].

But aside of these high profile cases there has been over twenty significant accidents at civilian plants in the 50 year history of nuclear power [list]. Additionally there has been dozens of military accidents since the 1940s [list].

Proponents of nuclear power say that it is safer now than it has ever been. However there is still concerns over what to do with the low and high level radioactive waste resulting from nuclear power generation. The amount of High Level Waste worldwide is currently increasing by about 12,000 metric tonnes every year, which is the equivalent to about 100 double-decker buses or a two-story structure built on top of a basketball court. And the debate, as to how this waste might be dealt with, continues. With the half-life of some radioactive elements being in excess of millions of years, the problem is of great concern. Most of the isotopes produced have significantly shorter half-lives. Plutonium, 239Pu, has a half-life of 24,100 years, while at the low end of the scale Iodine-131 has a half-life of 8 days.

For many environmentalists, the damage has already been done. Since 1945, approximately 7700 kg has been released into the Earth’s atmosphere from nuclear tests [Further resources: nuclearguide.com / radwaste.org / nuclear mapsnuclear maps]

Kevin Kamps, a Nuclear Waste Specialist at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, says it was likely that any changes to the nuclear industry resulting from the Fukushima disaster would likely be only piecemeal and just a knee-jerk reaction to the crisis. "Obviously the Japanese, the most prepared for earthquakes and tsunamis than any country in the world, underestimated the potential of a 9.0 earthquake. Obviously there has to be a reappraisal of safety risks," said Kamps who also belongs to the radioactive waste watchdog group Beyond Nuclear. Kamps opposes licence extensions at more than 20 nuclear power plants in the US. "Fukushima Unit One at the Daiichi Plant was a 40-year reactor. It was the first one to go into crisis.  We have 23 reactors in the United States of the very same design," he said [VoA].

The debate over nuclear power is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Proponents of nuclear energy often point to the fact that there are far few deaths in the nuclear industry than in other energy industries and that it is cleaner. Statistics are difficult to verify as to how many Uranium miners fall victim to cancers, but the coal mining industry is known to kill hundreds every year. The use of fossil fuels indeed cause widespread environmental damage. The damage caused by radioactive waste is less clear, partly because the effects of radiation may not reveal themselves for many years. Even when links are made of increased leukemia rates near to nuclear plants, those who support nuclear power will dispute the claims as having no substantive evidence.

As millions around the world look at the flickering screen and watch the unfolding despair in Japan, there is a reflection once more from Debord’s observations.

“Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation,” Debord wrote in his 1968 book Society of the Spectacle. Indeed, as he repeats in his 1988 publication. The society of the spectacle, an autocratic reign of the market economy, has continued to advance, Debord maintains. And this is furthered by the use of the “new wealth of mass communication through mass media.” This is even more true today with the advent of the Internet. But while some might suggest the flow of information makes people more informed, Debord suggests society is hoodwinked. “What is communicated are orders; and with great harmony, those who give them are also those who tell us what they think of them.”

Beyond the politics is the very real and dreadful situation facing the nation of Japan. It will take many months for the country to pick itself up. Families have been torn apart, towns and villages may never be rebuilt and industry will be slow to recover. The economy will suffer in the short term, given the affected area accounts for only 7% of GDP, but the effects will be felt for many years.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Monday, March 14, 2011

Google People Finder blocked in China

Despite the claims by Chinese officials that it fully supports efforts in helping Japan in the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck Friday it has failed to relax Internet controls that might help those in mainland China help locate loved ones. Soon after the magnitude 9 earthquake, Google launched a special people finder webpage in order to help reunite victims of the disaster.

However, in mainland China the page is blocked leaving many people anxious and leaving them with one less tool at their disposal to help search for missing relatives and friends. While Twitter and Facebook has also been widely used across Japan to keep people informed, such tools are inaccessible for most people in China. Some tweeters in Japan seemed not to realise the block on the Google service was due to Chinese censorship restrictions and targeted criticism at the Internet giant. "Google, open your access to mainland of China. There's Japanese in China and Chinese in Japan," wrote Iruka kou on her Twitter page, while Xuping Huang, posting from Japan, repeated the comments.

Google have a landing page with other resources which is not blocked in mainland China. However the People Finder app, which is embedded on the page as well as several links are inaccessible.

Meanwhile, a rescue team of 15 personnel from China have arrived in Japan with 4 tonnes of equipment. They join several others from around the world sent in a massive rescue and relief effort. [Pictured: the Google people finder as seen in China (left), and elsewhere (right)]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

China begins blocking VPNs

Over the past few days China has increased its grip on Internet controls and begun blocking VPNs [Virtual Private Networks]. It is the latest in a worrying series of moves at tightening Internet controls in China.

Many Twitter users have complained that access to various VPN services has been shaky or failed entirely recently. One Twitter user, @gudsn, said that GreenVPN failed to connect last Wednesday [March 9] and several users of Witopia, a popular VPN used by many expats, began to state they had problems.

For some VPN users problems began in late January when Freedur, one of the major VPNs used in China, was blocked entirely. The company said that multiple Freedur VPN IP addresses were blocked in China, resulting in service outage for Freedur users using the service from mainland China. Service was eventually restored as the company began the process of changing IP addresses and the updating servers [AP].

But the disruption to VPNs has not stopped at Freedur. In the last two weeks China has intensified its efforts in thwarting people's attempts to jump the Great Firewall of China, the colloquial term for the country's censorship infrastructure. Several users have complained they have been unable to access Witopia, 12VPN's mobile VPN service, Green VPN and Freedur.

In the past, VPN services in China were mostly used by expatriates trying to keep in touch with friends and family via social media, such at Twitter and Facebook. However, such services are becoming more widely used by Chinese citizens and it is this that is of greater concern to China's government.

China's stated stance is that Internet restrictions are applied in order to prevent the dissemination of pornography, terrorist propaganda, and websites which might encourage or create public disorder.

Various theories have been discussed as to why China is beefing up its war on the Internet. In late February, calls for a so-called Jasmine Revolution, inspired by the pro-democracy movements in the Middle East have prompted the Chinese authorities to clamp down hard on social media in China. Sina Weibo, a home-grown micro-blogging website, has tightened censorship and blocked keywords like Jasmine and Wangfujing, the location where protesters were encouraged to gather.

But Internet restriction tighten further still as the 12 National People's Congress began in Beijing. Many VPN users found they could no longer use such services on their mobile device. 12VPN responded to many users' complaints saying that the PPTP and L2TP VPN services had been blocked in China since Wednesday, and were attempting to create new IP addresses. Witopia appeared to be having similar issues by the weekend affecting mobile and PC based network devices. The company was recommending users report problems via e- mail instead of its live support service because of an "extraordinary volume from China shenanigans," according to a Witopia posting on its website. Witopia, located in Reston, Virgina, did not immediately return calls and e-mails to its press office, Bloomberg reported last Friday.

Li Wufeng, chief of the Information Office Internet Affairs Bureau of China's ruling State Council, said services offered in China must be provided by licensed operators and there have never been any issues involving the access of legitimate VPN services that are used by companies to enhance security. It is not known what constitutes a legitimate VPN service however.

Recently the architect of the Great Firewall of China said he had six VPNs which he used to test his creation. Fang Xinbing said more work was needed to bolster China's censorship wall [LA Times / CDT].

For many business users the problems have been compounded as GMail services appeared blocked in many parts of the country. Without a VPN even basic communication was impossible. Google Chat, an online message client has also been unstable lately adding to the problems.

There have been fears that China may also restrict VOIP services such as Skype, because telecom companies are complaining of unfair competition Computerworld reported on a story in the People's Daily which stated that the Chinese regulator had declared Internet phone services other than those provided by China Telecom and China Unicom illegal. However the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology did not give a timetable for when restrictions might come into place. That story was published in late December and as yet there has been no further move against VOIP services. PCWorld.com quoted Skype's Chinese partner, TOM Group, as saying, "The operation of Skype in China is compliant with local laws and regulations."

Last month LinkedIn, a business oriented social media website was blocked, if only for around 24 hours. Twitter, which is blocked in China, can be accessed through LinkedIn, and many suspected the block was connected to this.

If Internet restrictions extend to the realms of VPNs, VOIP and business sites, China may be pushing the envelope a little too far for some individuals. While some individuals use VPNs to access blocked sites and watch geographically restricted services such as Hulu LLC's online videos, VPNs are mainly used by companies to give employees secured access to corporate networks.

Without VPNs many businesses would be cut off from secure email and other services. If Skype were to be severed, conference calls might become impossible. China faces a difficult challenge as it tries to appease domestic businesses and hardliners in the party wanting to restrict the Internet, while trying to make a balance as it promotes openness and invites foreign business into the country. By increasing Internet restrictions, it risks throttling that business.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China