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When a flu virus is made deadlier…Scientists debate whether research should be published — or be done at all!

Posted by Admin on December 31, 2011

http://projects.registerguard.com/turin/2011/dec/27/when-a-flu-virus-is-made-deadlier/

When a flu virus is made deadlier

Scientists debate whether research should be published — or be done at all

BY DENISE GRADY AND DONALD MCNEIL JR.

The New York Times

Appeared in print: Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2011, page A1

The young scientist, normally calm and measured, seemed edgy when he stopped by his boss’s office.

“You are not going to believe this one,” he told Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Holland. “I think we have an airborne H5N1 virus.”

The news, delivered one afternoon last July, was chilling. It meant that Fouchier’s research group had taken one of the most dangerous flu viruses ever known and made it even more dangerous — by tweaking it genetically to make it more contagious.

What shocked the researchers was how easy it had been, Fouchier said. Just a few mutations were all it took to make the virus go airborne.

The discovery has led advisers to the U.S. government, which paid for the research, to urge that the details be kept secret and not published in scientific journals to prevent the work from being replicated by terrorists, hostile governments or rogue scientists.

Journal editors are taking the recommendation seriously, even though they normally resist any form of censorship. Scientists, too, usually insist on their freedom to share information, but fears of terrorism have led some to say this information is too dangerous to share.

Some biosecurity experts have even said that no scientist should have been allowed to create such a deadly germ in the first place, and they warn that not just the blueprints but the virus itself somehow could leak or be stolen from the laboratory.

Fouchier is cooperating with the request to withhold some data, but reluctantly. He thinks other scientists need the information.

The naturally occurring A(H5N1) virus is quite lethal without genetic tinkering. It already causes an exceptionally high death rate in humans, more than 50 percent. But the virus — a type of bird flu — does not often infect people, and when it does, they almost never transmit it to one another.

If, however, that were to change and bird flu were to develop the ability to spread from person to person, scientists fear, it could cause the deadliest flu pandemic in history.

The experiment in Rotterdam transformed the virus into the supergerm of virologists’ nightmares, enabling it to spread from one animal to another through the air. The work was done in ferrets, which catch flu the same way people do.

“This research should not have been done,” said Richard Ebright, a chemistry professor and bioweapons expert at Rutgers University who has long opposed such research.

Ebright warned that germs that could be used as bioweapons already had been released unintentionally hundreds of times from labs in the United States and predicted that the same thing would happen with the new virus.

“It will inevitably escape, and within a decade,” he said.

But Fouchier and many public health experts argue that the experiment had to be done. If scientists can make the virus more transmissible in the lab, then it also can happen in nature, Fouchier said.

Knowing that the risk is real should drive countries where the virus is circulating in birds to take urgent steps to eradicate it, he said. And knowing which mutations lead to transmissibility should help scientists who monitor bird flu to recognize if and when a circulating strain starts to develop pandemic potential.

“There are highly respected virologists who thought until a few years ago that H5N1 could never become airborne between mammals,” Fouchier said.

“I wasn’t convinced. To prove these guys wrong, we needed to make a virus that is transmissible.”

Other virologists differ.

Dr. W. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University questioned the need for the research. He rejected Fouchier’s contention that making a virus transmissible in the laboratory proves that it can or will happen in nature.

But Richard Webby, a virologist at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., said Fouchier’s research was useful, with the potential to answer major questions about flu viruses, such as what makes them transmissible and how some that appear to infect only animals suddenly can invade humans as well.

“I would certainly love to be able to see that information,” Webby said, explaining that he has a freezer full of bird flu viruses from all over the world. “If I detect a virus in our activities that has some of these changes, it could change the direction of what we do.”

The A(H5N1) bird flu first was recognized in Hong Kong in 1997, when chickens in poultry markets began dying and 18 people fell ill, six of them fatally. Hoping to stamp out the virus, the government in Hong Kong destroyed the country’s entire poultry industry — killing more than 1 million birds in just a few days .

But the virus persisted in other parts of Asia, and it reached Europe and Africa. Millions of infected birds have died. Since 1997, about 600 humans have been infected, and more than half died.

Dr. Donald Henderson, a leader in the eradication of smallpox and now a biosecurity expert at the University of Pittsburgh, noted that even the notorious flu pandemic of 1918 killed only 2 percent of patients.

“This is running at 50 percent or more,” Henderson said. “This would be the ultimate organism as far as destruction of population is concerned.”

The medical center in Rotterdam built a special 1,000-square-foot virus lab for this work, a locked-down locale where people work in spacesuits in sealed chambers with filtered air and multiple precautions to keep germs in and intruders out and to protect the scientists.

The Dutch government and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved the laboratory, and the National Institutes of Health gave the Erasmus center a seven-year contract for flu research.

 

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Special Report: How Indonesia crippled its own climate change

Posted by Admin on August 16, 2011

http://news.yahoo.com/special-report-indonesia-crippled-own-climate-change-065209503.html

By David Fogarty | Reuters – 57 mins ago

Birute Mary Galdikas, the founder of Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), visits a feeding station at OFI's orangutan care and quarantine centre in Pangkalan Bun in the province of Central Kalimantan in this undated handout photo courtesy of InfiniteEARTH.

Birute Mary Galdikas, the founder of Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), visits a feeding station at OFI's orangutan care and quarantine centre in Pangkalan Bun in the province of Central Kalimantan in this undated handout photo courtesy of InfiniteEARTH. REUTERS/InfiniteEARTH/Handout

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – In July 2010, U.S. investor Todd Lemons and Russian energy giant Gazprom believed they were just weeks from winning final approval for a landmark forest preservation project in Indonesia.

A year later, the project is close to collapse, a casualty of labyrinthine Indonesian bureaucracy, opaque laws and a secretive palm oil company.

The Rimba Raya project, on the island of Borneo, is part of a United Nations-backed scheme designed to reward poorer nations that protect their carbon-rich jungles.

Deep peat in some of Indonesia’s rainforests stores billions of tonnes of carbon so preserving those forests is regarded as crucial in the fight against climate change.

By putting a value on the carbon, the 90,000-hectare (225,000 acre) project would help prove that investors can turn a profit from the world’s jungles in ways that do not involve cutting them down.

After three years of work, more than $2 million in development costs, and what seemed like the green light from Jakarta, the project is proof that saving the world’s tropical rainforests will be far more complicated than simply setting up a framework to allow market forces to function.

A Reuters investigation into the case also shows the forestry ministry is highly skeptical about a market for forest carbon credits, placing it at odds with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who supports pay-and-preserve investments to fight climate change.

Hong Kong-based Lemons, 47, a veteran of environmentally sustainable, and profitable, projects, discovered just how frustrating the ministry can be to projects such as his.

“Success was literally two months around the corner,” he said. “We went through — if there are 12 steps, we went through the first 11 on time over a 2-year period. We had some glitches, but by and large we went through the rather lengthy and complicated process in the time expected.”

That’s when the forestry ministry decided to slash the project’s area in half, making it unviable, and handing a large chunk of forested deep peatland to a palm oil company for development.

The case is a stark reminder to Norway’s government, the world’s top donor to projects to protect tropical forests, on just how tough it will be to preserve Indonesia’s rainforests under its $1 billion climate deal with Jakarta.

UNLIMITED CORRUPTION

The dispute has turned a spotlight on Indonesia’s forestry ministry, which earns $15 billion a year in land permit fees from investors. Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) said last month it will investigate the granting of forest permits and plans to crack down on corruption in the resources sector.

“It’s a source of unlimited corruption,” said Chandra M. Hamzah, deputy chairman at the KPK.

Indonesia Corruption Watch, a private watchdog, says illegal logging and violations in issuing forest use permits are rampant. It estimates ill-gotten gains total about 20 trillion rupiah ($2.3 billion) each year.

A forest ministry official connected with the U.N.-backed forest carbon offset scheme was sentenced in April to three years in prison for accepting a $10,000 bribe to ensure an Indonesian company won a procurement tender.

Wandojo Siswanto was one of the negotiators for Indonesia’s delegation at the 2009 U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, despite being a bribery suspect. His case has highlighted concerns about the capacity of the forestry ministry to manage forest-carbon projects.

The forestry sector has a long history of mismanagement and graft. Former trade and industry minister Bob Hasan, a timber czar during the Suharto years, was fined 50 billion rupiah ($7 million) for ordering the burning of forests in Sumatra and then imprisoned in a separate case of forestry fraud after Suharto was toppled from power in 1998.

In an interview in Jakarta, senior forestry ministry officials denied any wrongdoing in the Rimba Raya case and criticized the project’s backers for a deal they made with Russia’s Gazprom, the world’s largest gas producer, to market the project’s carbon credits.

Internal forestry ministry documents that Reuters obtained show how the ministry reversed its support for the project after a new minister came in, and a large chunk of the project’s land was turned over to a palm oil firm.

The case illustrates how growing demand for land, bureaucratic hurdles and powerful vested interests are major obstacles to conservation projects in Indonesia and elsewhere in the developing world.

That makes it hard for these projects to compete and navigate through multiple layers of government with the potential for interference and delay.

“We have systematically not been able to demonstrate that we can complete the loop to turn projects into dollar investments,” said Andrew Wardell, program director, forests and governance, at the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia.

“Which is why the palm oil industry is winning hands down every time.”

SHOWCASE PROJECT

The Rimba Raya project was meant to save a large area of carbon-rich peat swamp forest in Central Kalimantan province and showcase Jakarta’s efforts to fight climate change.

Much of the area is dense forest that lies atop oozy black peat flooded by tea-colored water. Dozens of threatened or endangered species such as orangutans, proboscis monkeys, otter civets and Borneo bay cats live in the area, which is adjacent to a national park.

Rimba Raya was designed to be part of the U.N’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) program. The idea is simple: every tonne of carbon locked away in the peat and soaked up by the trees would earn a steady flow of carbon credits.

Profit from the sale of those credits would go to project investors and partners, local communities and the Indonesian government. That would allow the project to pay its way and compete with palm oil farmers and loggers who might otherwise destroy it.

Rich countries and big companies can buy the credits to offset their emissions.

By preserving a large area of peat swamp forest, Rimba Raya was projected to cut carbon emissions by nearly 100 million tonnes over its 30-year life, which would translate into total saleable credits of about $500 million, Gazprom says.

It would also be a sanctuary for orphaned or rehabilitated orangutans from elsewhere in Borneo. Rimba Raya teamed up with the founder of Orangutan Foundation International, Birute Mary Galdikas, in which OFI would receive a steady income from annual carbon credit sales.

It was the sort of project President Yudhoyono and Norway have pledged to support. Yudhoyono has put forests — Indonesia is home to the world’s third-largest forest lands — at the center of a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent by 2020.

He tasked a senior adviser to press for reforms to make REDD projects easier and for greater transparency at the forestry ministry.

GOLD STANDARD

Rimba Raya was poised for success. It got backing from the Clinton Foundation’s Climate Initiative, which helped pay for some of the early costs. Gazprom invested more than $1 million.

It was the first in the world to meet stringent REDD project rules under the Washington-based Voluntary Carbon Standard, an industry-respected body that issues carbon credits. Rimba Raya was also the first to earn a triple-gold rating under the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance, a separate verifier.

Companies including German insurer Allianz and Japanese telecoms giant NTT pledged to buy credits from the project if it gets its license.

In December 2009, the forestry ministry tentatively named the now Indonesian-registered company PT Rimba Raya Conservation the license holder for nearly 90,000 ha, contingent on it passing an environmental impact assessment. It did so a few months later.

The ownership of PT Rimba Raya Conservation is split 70 percent foreign and 30 percent Indonesian, with Lemons and business partner Jim Procanik holding small stakes.

Lemons is CEO of Hong Kong-based firm InfiniteEARTH, which is the developer and manager of the Rimba Raya project as well as investment fund-raiser. Procanik, 44, is the managing director.

In June last year, Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan asked for a map that would set the final boundary of the project, according to a copy of the instruction seen by Reuters. This mandatory step normally takes a few weeks. Once the map is issued, a project is eligible for a license to operate.

But by September last year it was clear something was wrong, according to Lemons. Despite repeated promises by ministry officials, the final map had not been issued. No explanations were given.

“No one has ever said, ‘No’. So that’s exhausting,” said Lemons.

What followed instead was a series of steps by the forestry ministry that have resulted in the project being undermined.

A ministry review focused on conflicting claims to the land by several companies belonging to palm oil firm, PT Best Group.

PT Best, which is run by Indonesian brothers Winarto and Winarno Tjajadi, had long coveted the peat land within the area the forestry ministry set aside for the Rimba Raya project.

On December 31, 2010, PT Best was granted 6,500 ha of peat swamp land for palm oil development, next to a smaller parcel of deep peat land granted a year earlier — part of PT Best’s broader plan to connect its palm oil plantations in the north with a port on the coast nearby. The land granted last December was part of the original area set aside for Rimba Raya.

The Tjajadi brothers declined several requests by Reuters to comment.

The December allocation to PT Best came despite assurances from Forestry Minister Hasan that he would not allow deep peatlands to be converted for agriculture.

The allocation also came a day before a two-year moratorium on issuing licenses to clear primary forests and peat lands was due to start on January 1 this year. The moratorium is a key part of the climate deal with Norway.

After months of delay, the forestry ministry finally ruled that PT Rimba Raya was only eligible for 46,000 ha, a decision that cut out much of the peatlands covering nearly half the original project area.

OMBUDSMAN INVESTIGATES

The case has now been brought before the office of the Indonesian government’s Ombudsman. In an interview, senior Ombudsman Dominikus Fernandes told Reuters he believed the forestry ministry should issue the license to Rimba Raya.

“If Rimba Raya has already fulfilled the criteria, there should not be a delay in issuing the license,” he said.

“This is a model project in Indonesia that should be prioritized. If we don’t give an example on the assurance of investing in Indonesia, that’s not a good thing.”

Officials from the forestry ministry, in a lengthy interview with Reuters, said the area was given legally for palm oil development because PT Best had claims to the land dating back to 2005.

Secretary-General of the ministry Hadi Daryanto stressed the peatland areas originally granted to Rimba Raya were on a type of forest called convertible production forest, which can be used for agriculture but not REDD projects. Handing that nearly 40,000 ha to Rimba Raya would be against the law, he said.

Yet in 2009, the ministry was ordered to make the title switch for this same area of peatland so it could be used for a REDD project. The instruction to immediately make the switch, a bureaucratic formality, was never acted on.

In the Oct 2009 decree seen by Reuters, former Forestry Minister H.M.S. Kaban issued the order as part of a broader instruction setting aside the nearly 90,000 ha for ecosystem restoration projects. Kaban left office soon after.

Indonesian law also bans any clearing of peat lands more than 3 meters deep. An assessment of the Rimba Raya area by a peat expert hired by InfiniteEARTH showed the peat is 3 to 7 meters deep, so in theory was out of bounds for PT Best to clear for agriculture.

For Lemons, 47, the mood has switched from exhilaration to bitter disappointment. “We’ve been here every day pushing like hell from every angle,” he said.

Procanik says the disappointment is personal. “Todd and I have both invested what savings we had for our kids’ college education in this project,” he said.

Gazprom is also upset.

In a letter dated June 16 to the Indonesian government, the Russian firm criticized the ministry’s failure to issue the license for Rimba Raya and threatened to abandon clean-energy projects in Indonesia estimated to be worth more than $100 million in foreign investment. The government has yet to respond.

CARBON DREAMS?

Secretary-General Daryanto and Iman Santoso, Director-General for forestry business management, said another major problem was InfiniteEARTH’s deal with Gazprom, which was made in the absence of any license.

“We didn’t know about the contract with Gazprom. They had no legal right to make the contract,” Daryanto told Reuters.

Santoso described it as the project’s “fatal mistake.”

Daryanto also questioned whether REDD would ever work and whether there was any global appetite for carbon credits the program generates, a view at odds with other parts of the Indonesian government, which has been actively supporting REDD projects.

“Who will pay for the dream of Rimba Raya? Who will pay? Nobody, sir!” Daryanto told Reuters during an interview in the heavily forested ministry compound near central Jakarta.

Lemons said the Gazprom deal was explained in person during a presentation of a 300-page technical proposal submitted to the ministry to prove the project would be financially viable. Daryanto was among a ministry panel that approved the proposal.

“One of their biggest concerns was whether REDD could deliver the same revenues to the state as other land-use permits such as palm oil, logging, mining. We were required to show contracts that demonstrated we could pay the fees and annual royalties,” he said.

Gazprom, designated as the sole marketer of carbon credits from Rimba Raya, said it had already agreed long-term sales contracts with buyers at between 7 and 8 euros ($10 to $11.40) per tonne — contingent on the license being issued.

“We’ve sold to four or five companies around that price,” said Dan Barry, Gazprom Marketing & Trading’s London-based global director of clean energy.

Gazprom became involved, he said, because it was a project that looked to have official support. The Russian company agreed to a financing mechanism that ensured the project’s viability for 30 years, regardless of the price level of carbon markets.

Those markets, centered on the European and U.N. carbon trading programs, were valued at $142 billion in 2010, the World Bank says. National carbon trading schemes are planned for Australia and South Korea, while California is planning a state-based scheme from 2013. New Zealand’s carbon market started in 2008.

“If you ever want a successful REDD scheme, you are going to have to have a process that people believe in,” Barry said.

“The Ministry of Forestry ought to be doing everything it can to support a program that benefits forestry as opposed to favor a program that’s there to cut it down and turn it into palm oil.”

“AHEAD OF ITS TIME”

Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the head of the REDD task force in Indonesia who is also in charge of the president’s government reforms unit, said the Rimba Raya case highlighted deep flaws in the bureaucracy and the need for sweeping reforms to underpin the 40 other REDD projects in Indonesia.

“The core concern is the trust in government statements of readiness, and responsibility,” he told Reuters in an email. “Even with the best of intentions, the unsynchronous action of the central government’s ministry and the district government’s action is not conducive for investment, especially in this new kind of venture.

“I can surmise that the case of Rimba Raya is a case of a business idea that is ahead of its time. The government infrastructure is insufficiently ready for it.”

Legal action was one solution to this case, he added.

That is a path Lemons and Procanik may eventually take but for now they have proposed a land swap deal with PT Best in which the firm gives PT Rimba Raya 9,000 ha of peat land in return for a similar sized piece of non-peat land held by PT Rimba Raya in the north of the project near other PT Best landholdings.

PT Best rejected an earlier offer by Rimba Raya of 9 percent of the credits from the project, Lemons said.

Based on recent satellite images, PT Best has yet to develop the disputed 9,000 ha area.

The delays mean it is too late for Rimba Raya to become the world’s first project to issue REDD credits. That accolade has since gone to a Kenyan project.

“Our whole point here is to show host countries that REDD can pay its way,” said Lemons. “And if it can’t pay its way then we haven’t proven anything.”

In a sign a resolution could still be possible, Ombudsman Fernandes, Forestry Minister Hasan and PT Rimba Raya are scheduled to meet on Aug 19.

(Additional reporting by Olive Rondonuwu and Yayat Supriatna in Jakarta and Harry Suhartono in Singapore; Editing by Simon Webb, Simon Robinson and Bill Tarrant)

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TV report of China leader’s death fuels political rumor mill

Posted by Admin on July 8, 2011

http://news.yahoo.com/tv-report-china-leaders-death-fuels-political-rumor-092510202.html

By Benjamin Lim and Sui-Lee Wee | Reuters – 23 hrs ago

BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese state media denied rum ours on Thursday that former president Jiang Zemin had died after a Hong Kong television station said he had, sparking a wave of speculation about a leadership transition due next year.

“Recent reports of some overseas media organizations about Jiang Zemin’s death from illness are pure rumor,” the official Xinhua news agency quoted “authoritative sources” as saying.

Jiang, 84, is in poor health. Three sources with ties to China’s leadership told Reuters that he is in intensive care in Beijing at the No. 301 military hospital after suffering a heart attack.

In the opaque world of Chinese politics, the health of a leader is fodder for rumors about how the balance of power is shifting at the highest levels of the government.

Current President Hu Jintao retires from office from late next year in a sweeping leadership overhaul, and the rumors about Jiang’s health underscore the uncertainties around this.

Hong Kong’s Asia Television interrupted its main newscast on Wednesday evening to announce solemnly that Jiang had died, and followed with a brief profile. It kept up the news for several hours on a ticker and then said it would air a special report on Jiang’s life late in the evening.

It later canceled the report, and withdrew the ticker after failing to get official confirmation.

On Thursday afternoon, the television station issued a statement to apologize to its audience and Jiang’s family.

“Asia Television has taken note of this afternoon’s report from Xinhua and has withdrawn last night’s report about Mr. Jiang Zemin’s death and would like to apologize to our audience and Mr. Jiang Zemin’s family,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, the Shandong News website (www.sdnews.com.cn) in northeast China posted a black banner with white characters, saying “Our Respectable Comrade Jiang Zemin Is Immortal.” The site was no longer accessible on Thursday.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei deflected numerous questions about Jiang at a regular news briefing, saying Xinhua had already made a full explanation and that he had nothing further to add.

Searches on a popular Chinese micro-blogging site with terms ranging from “Jiang Zemin” to the Yangtze River (Jiang’s surname means “river”), are blocked, a sign that China’s censors are concerned about public debate about his health.

Premature reports about the demise of Chinese leaders are hardly new. In the 1990s, Hong Kong and Japanese media reported several times that paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had died.

UNCERTAINTY FOR JIANG ALLIES

Jiang Zemin’s passing — on the surface at least — would likely have limited impact on the direction of China’s politics and economic development.

He retired long ago, handing over the Communist Party’s top job to Hu in 2002 and his other posts over the next two years. Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have since led the country on a decade-long charge that saw it grow from an economy the size of Britain to one that has surpassed Japan.

But the prospect of Jiang’s passing would add a breeze of uncertainty to a transition that is widely thought to hand power from Hu to a new generation led by Xi Jinping, currently vice president. That would take place at the 18th Communist Party Congress expected sometime in the autumn of 2012.

Xi, anointed as Hu’s heir apparent at the congress in 2007, was considered acceptable to both the Hu and Jiang camps.

But in China, the death of a senior leader can be cause for worry, and even spell disaster, for proteges and allies who are no longer protected.

Hu would no longer have Jiang acting as a counterweight to his influence over the future make up of the next leadership.

“New leaders are selected by old leaders,” Zheng Yongnian, professor of Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. “He’s one of the important selectorate. After he passes away, other current leaders will become more influential.”

He could also settle scores or take down other rivals with links to Jiang, if necessary.

Past leaders can have considerable clout in China. Deng wielded power as paramount leader despite having given up all his posts except the honorary chairman of the Chinese bridge association.

Jiang consolidated his own grip on power after Deng died in 1997. By the time Jiang retired his last post — as head of the military commission — in 2004, he had already stacked the Politburo with his people.

“Front and back, left and right, up and down. No matter where Hu looks, there is a Jiang man,” said one source at the time the leadership line-up was announced back in 2002.

In Jiang’s case, there are quite a few allies still in place in the leadership who might now have cause for concern, should Hu assert himself.

“If he dies, the situation becomes very delicate,” said one source with ties to leadership circles who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the subject.

Among the Jiang allies still in senior posts are: Wu Bangguo, parliament chief and the second ranking person in the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee; Jia Qinglin, who heads a parliamentary advisory body and is ranked fourth; and Li Changchun, who oversees propaganda and ideology and is ranked fifth.

How exactly it will play it out, is unclear. With the Party Congress only about 15 months away, Hu’s window to further consolidate his grip on power is considerably shorter than Jiang had as he prepared to step down.

(Writing by Brian Rhoads; Additional reporting by Alison Leung in HONG KONG and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING,; Editing by Don Durfee and John Chalmers)

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China dismisses U.S. call on Tiananmen anniversary

Posted by Admin on June 5, 2011

http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20110604/wl_nm/us_china_tiananmen

People walk past a replica of the Goddess of ...
 People walk past a replica of the Goddess of Democracy as they enter Hong Kong‘s Victoria Park
By Ben Blanchard and James Pomfret 1 hr 33 mins ago

BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) – China dismissed a U.S. call for it to free dissidents and fully account for the victims of the bloody Tiananmen crackdown, on the anniversary of the crushing of the pro-democracy uprising 22 years ago.

The date on which troops shot their way into central Beijing in 1989, killing hundreds, was not publicly marked in mainland China. The democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere remain taboo for the ruling Communist Party, especially this year after calls for an Arab-style “jasmine revolution.”

In Hong Kong, tens of thousands lit candles, held jasmine flowers and chanted for a fully democratic China in a night vigil to mark the anniversary and condemn Beijing’s human rights abuses and curbs on freedoms.

The State Department said China must release all those still jailed for their participation in the 1989 protests.

“We ask the Chinese government to provide the fullest possible public accounting of those killed, detained or missing,” deputy spokesman Mark Toner said.

At least five people remain in jail for taking part in the protests.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, in a statement carried by the official Xinhua news agency, said the U.S. comments “groundlessly accused the Chinese government.”

“We urge the U.S. side to abandon its political bias and rectify wrong practices to avoid disturbing China-U.S. relations.”

The president of democratic Taiwan, the island China claims as its own and has never renounced the use of force to recover, said Beijing should follow Taipei’s example and reform politically.

“We urgently hope the mainland Chinese authorities will have the courage to undertake political reforms and promote the development of freedom, democracy, human rights, and rule of law,” President Ma Ying-jeou said in a statement.

On Saturday, Tiananmen Square was packed with tourists as normal, with no obvious signs of extra security.

“I didn’t agree with the method of the protest, making a disturbance on the square,” said a 60-year-old Beijing resident who gave her family name as Chen. “But I think there should be a way for people to express what’s on their mind.”

“VOICE FOR CHINA”

In a Hong Kong park however, some 150,000 people made a plea for Beijing to atone for the June 4 crackdown, an event given added poignancy this year by a heavy clampdown on dissent.

“We want to express that we’ve never given up,” said Andy Wong, who was at the vigil with his wife and two kids. “When there’s a big turnout it shows that we (Hong Kong) still care.”

Hong Kong, a former British colony handed back to China in 1997 with a promise of a high degree of autonomy, has remained a beacon for the overseas Chinese pro-democracy movement.

“Hong Kong is now playing a more important role when the whole of China is silenced,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a pro-democracy lawmaker and one of the organizers. “We are the voice for China and we’ll spread the message for democracy,”

Dissidents in China, meanwhile, said controls over them had been strengthened.

“I can’t come out today. I’ve been kept at home. But I’ll be fasting for the day, like I do every June 4 anniversary,” said Zhou Duo.

Zhou was one of four activists who negotiated with troops to evacuate Tiananmen Square of student-protesters in 1989, avoiding much bloodshed on the square itself on June 4. He was later jailed for his role in the protests.

“Of course, sooner or later June 4 will be reassessed and rehabilitated. That’s inevitable. History can never be completely erased.”

Zhang Xianling, who lost her son in the Tiananmen protests, said she had been allowed out to visit her son’s grave, but was being followed and was not allowed to go as part of a group with other bereaved parents, as she has done in the past.

“It shows that even after all these years, China is still limiting human rights,” Zhang said.

After the crackdown, the government called the movement a “counter-revolutionary plot,” but has more recently referred to it as a “political disturbance.”

Recent unrest in Inner Mongolia and explosions in two provinces sparked by social grievances have also ruffled authorities as the leadership prepares to hand over power to a new generation at a Party Congress next year.

(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley, Ken Wills and K.J. Kwon in Beijing, Paul Eckert in Washington, James Pomfret, Xavier Ng and Justina Lee in Hong Kong, and Jonathan Standing in Taipei; editing by Robert Birsel and Andrew Roche)

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Japan raises nuclear crisis to same level as Chernobyl

Posted by Admin on April 12, 2011

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http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20110412/wl_nm/us_japan

By Shinichi Saoshiro and Yoko Nishikawa Shinichi Saoshiro And Yoko Nishikawa 42 mins ago

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan put its nuclear calamity on a par with the world’s worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, on Tuesday after new data showed that more radiation leaked from its earthquake-crippled power plant in the early days of the crisis than first thought.

Japanese officials said it had taken time to measure radiation from the plant after it was smashed by March 11’s massive quake and tsunami, and the upgrade in its severity rating to the highest level on a globally recognized scale did not mean the situation had suddenly become more critical.

“The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is slowly stabilizing, step by step, and the emission of radioactive substances is on a declining trend,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan told a press briefing on Tuesday.

Kan said he wanted to move from emergency response to long-term rebuilding.

“A month has passed. We need to take steps toward restoration and reconstruction,” he said.

He also called on opposition parties, whose help he needs to pass bills in a divided parliament, to take part in drafting reconstruction plans from an early stage.

The operator of the stricken facility appears to be no closer to restoring cooling systems at the reactors, critical to lowering the temperature of overheated nuclear fuel rods. Late on Tuesday, Japan’s science ministry said small amounts of strontium, one of the most harmful and long-lasting radioactive elements, had been found in soil near Fukushima Daiichi.

Hidehiko Nishiyama, a deputy director-general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), said the decision to raise the severity of the incident from level 5 to 7 — the same as the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986 — was based on cumulative quantities of radiation released.

No radiation-linked deaths have been reported since the earthquake struck, and only 21 plant workers have been affected by minor radiation sickness, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.

“Although the level has been raised to 7 today, it doesn’t mean the situation today is worse than it was yesterday, it means the event as a whole is worse than previously thought,” said nuclear expert John Price, a former member of the Safety Policy Unit at the UK’s National Nuclear Corporation.

“NOWHERE NEAR CHERNOBYL”

A level 7 incident means a major release of radiation with a widespread health and environmental impact, while a 5 level is a limited release of radioactive material, with several deaths, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Several experts said the new rating exaggerated the severity of the crisis.

“It’s nowhere near that level. Chernobyl was terrible — it blew and they had no containment, and they were stuck,” said nuclear industry specialist Murray Jennex, an associate professor at San Diego State University in California.

“Their containment has been holding, the only thing that hasn’t is the fuel pool that caught fire.”

The blast at Chernobyl blew the roof off a reactor and sent large amounts of radiation wafting across Europe. The accident contaminated vast areas and led to the evacuation of well over 100,000 people.

Nevertheless, the increase in the severity level heightens the risk of diplomatic tension with Japan’s neighbors over radioactive fallout. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told Kan on Tuesday he was “concerned” about the release of radiation into the ocean.

“If Japan mishandles this issue, especially if, to solve its own problems, it affects the safety of neighboring countries, then that will have a bad effect on relations at the government and public levels,” said Sun Cheng, a professor specializing in Japanese politics and Sino-Japanese relations at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing.

Chinese worries have not reached that point yet, he said.

China has so far been sympathetic rather than angry, though it and South Korea have criticized the plant operator’s decision to pump radioactive water into the sea, a process it has now stopped.

HUGE ECONOMIC DAMAGE

The March earthquake and tsunami killed up to 28,000 people and the estimated financial cost stands at $300 billion, making it the world’s most expensive disaster.

Japan’s economics minister warned the damage was likely to be worse than first thought as power shortages would cut factory output and disrupt supply chains.

The Bank of Japan governor said the economy was in a “severe state,” while central bankers were uncertain when efforts to rebuild the northeast would boost growth, according to minutes from a meeting held three days after the earthquake struck.

NISA said the amount of radiation released into the atmosphere from the plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, was around 10 percent that of Chernobyl.

“Radiation released into the atmosphere peaked from March 15 to 16. Radiation is still being released, but the amount now has fallen considerably,” said NISA’s Nishiyama.

Lam Ching-wan, a chemical pathologist at the University of Hong Kong and member of the American Board of Toxicology, said this level of radiation was harmful.

“It means there is damage to soil, ecosystem, water, food and people. People receive this radiation. You can’t escape it by just shutting the window,” Lam said.

(Additional reporting by Risa Maeda, Yoko Kobuta, Linda Sieg, Michael Perry and Nathan Layne in Tokyo, Scott DiSavino in New York, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong and Ron Popeski in Singapore; Writing by Daniel Magnowski; Editing by John Chalmers and Alex Richardson)

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