Power cable connected to troubled Japan reactor

OSAKA, March 19, 2011 (AFP) - Engineers at a stricken nuclear plant in Japan have connected an electricity line to one of the reactors and are working to restore power for its cooling system, officials said Saturday.

The cable has been linked to reactor No. 2 at the troubled Fukushima No. 1 plant, whose operator TEPCO has been battling to prevent a full-blown meltdown following a massive earthquake and tsunami.

There are six reactors at the plant, which is located about 250 kilometres (155 miles) northeast of Tokyo and has already leaked radiation, prompting the government to order an evacuation within a 20-kilometre radius.

"The line itself was connected to the reactor No. 2 but electricity has not been restored yet," said a spokesman for the nuclear safety agency, Fumiaki Hayakawa.

"If the power is turned on without checks it may malfunction. They are checking the facility now. If no problem is found at the facility today, the power will resume as early as tomorrow (Sunday)."

Once power is back up, the radiation-suited Fukushima engineers hope they can get vital cooling systems online. In the meantime, they have been dumping water by hose and by air on the reactors to cool the fuel rods.

Given the extent of damage at the plant, it is unclear whether the cooling system will work even if power is restored.

"Although we are doing our best, unfortunately we cannot say when electricity will be restored," said a TEPCO official.

Reactors 1 and 2 usually share the same electricity line, so the cable could in theory restore power to both if the system still functions.

Four of the plant's six reactor units -- numbers one to four -- have been in danger of spewing dangerous amounts of radioactivity, following a series of hydrogen explosions and fires at buildings housing the troubled reactors.

A 9.0-magnitude earthquake last week, followed by monster tsunami waves and aftershocks, knocked out the power supply, including generators for emergency use, at the plant on the Pacific coast.

US detects 'minuscule' radioactivity from Japan

LOS ANGELES, March 18, 2011 (AFP) - A radiation monitor in California detected a "minuscule" amount of an isotope from Japan's crippled nuclear power plant, officials said Friday, but insisted it was of no concern.

In the first confirmation of radioactivity having reached the US mainland, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the monitor in Sacramento had detected "minuscule quantities of the radioactive isotope xenon-133.

"The origin was determined to be consistent with a release from the Fukushima reactors in northern Japan," it added in a joint statement with the Department of Energy.

The levels detected were some 0.1 disintegrations per second per cubic meter of air (0.1 Bq/m3) -- about one-millionth of the dose a person normally receives from rocks, bricks, the sun and other natural background sources.

Similar readings were detected in Washington State, further up the US west coast, on Wednesday and Thursday, it said, adding that Xenon-133 is a gas produced in nuclear fission "that poses no concern at the detected level."

"These types of readings remain consistent with our expectations since the onset of this tragedy, and are to be expected in the coming days."

Overall, however, the EPA's network of radiation sensors across the US mainland, as well as in Hawaii and Guam in the Pacific, "has not detected any radiation levels of concern," the statement added.

"In addition to EPA's RadNet system, the US Department of Energy has radiation monitoring equipment at research facilities around the country, which have also not detected any radiation levels of concern," it added.

US authorities including President Barack Obama have repeatedly said they expect no harmful levels of radiation to reach the US or its territories in the Pacific.

But concerns over fallout from the Fukushima power plant, crippled by last Friday's killer earthquake and tsunami, led to a rush to stockpile potassium iodide pills, which can protect against radiation.

The Sacramento monitor was part of a network feeding data to the Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, designed to detect "an underground nuclear test on the other side of the world."

"These detectors are extremely sensitive and can detect minute amounts of radioactive materials," it added.

Japan races to start nuclear plant cooling system

OSAKA, March 19, 2011 (AFP) - Japan said Saturday it was close to restoring electricity to reactor cooling systems at a stricken nuclear plant as efforts to prevent dangerous radiation leaks reached a crucial phase.

Electricity was expected to be reconnected to four reactor units at the Fukushima No. 1 plant on Saturday and to the remaining two on Sunday after damage from a huge earthquake and tsunami, the nuclear safety agency said.

The announcement offered some hope of a breakthrough in efforts to prevent a full-blown meltdown at the troubled facility, although it is not yet clear whether the cooling system will work properly even if power is restored.

Emergency services were also preparing to dump more water on overheating fuel rods in what the head of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has described as "a race against time" to prevent a major disaster.

Plant operator TEPCO has not ruled out the last-resort option of entombing the plant in sand and concrete as Russia did with the Chernobyl plant in 1986, but says it is still focusing its efforts on cooling the facility.

The company said it had installed an external power line to the plant, located about 250 kilometres (155 miles) northeast of Tokyo, and was battling to reconnect reactor units, starting with the least damaged unit.

"We are still working to lay the power line for a distance of 1.5 kilometres (one mile) to reconnect the reactor number two. We are struggling in this work."

In the meantime a generator-powered water cooling pump is being used at one of the reactors, the nuclear safety agency said.

TEPCO also said that its engineers had bored holes in the roofs of the buildings housing reactors five and six to avoid a potential explosion of hydrogen gas.

Four of the plant's six reactor units -- numbers one to four -- have been in danger of spewing dangerous amounts of radioactivity, following a series of hydrogen explosions and fires at buildings housing the troubled reactors.

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake last week, followed by monster tsunami waves and aftershocks, knocked out the power supply, including generators for emergency use, at the plant on the Pacific coast.

Authorities have since struggled to keep the fuel rods inside reactors, and fuel storage containment pools, under water.

If they are exposed to air, they could degrade further and emit large amounts of radioactive material.
Japan's nuclear safety agency on Friday raised the Fukushima crisis level to five from four on the international scale of gravity for atomic accidents, which goes up to seven.

The decision puts Fukushima on the same level as the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and makes it the worst ever in Japan.

"This is a very grave and serious accident," the Japanese head of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, said Friday after meeting Prime Minister Naoto Kan in Tokyo.

Japan has said radiation levels from the plant pose no health threat outside a 20-kilometre exclusion zone, despite slightly elevated levels in Tokyo earlier in the week.

The IAEA said Friday that radiation levels detected in the Japanese capital did not pose any harm to human health.

"Dose rates in Tokyo and other cities remain far from levels which would require action. In other words they are not dangerous to human health," said Graham Andrew, scientific and technical advisor to the head of the IAEA, which has sent a radiation monitoring team to Japan.

Despite the reassurances, Britain, France and other countries have advised their citizens to leave Tokyo and many foreigners have fled the capital, fearing that a larger radiation leak might reach the sprawling city.

Many nations have shifted embassies out of Tokyo, and the mood is jittery even far from Japan, with panic-buying of iodine pills in the United States, and Asian airports scanning passengers from Japan for radiation contamination.

Medical crisis in Japan's evacuation shelters

KESENNUMA, March 19, 2011 (AFP) - Overworked doctors are struggling to provide care to the sick and infirm evacuated from hospitals to ill-equipped shelters after the giant earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan.

Public health professionals have warned of flu outbreaks in the congested shelters -- often little more than school gyms with no heating or running water, meaning the medical treatment on offer is basic. At best.

Many survivors were left without their regular medications when the tsunami waters destroyed their houses and swallowed entire picturesque towns in northeast Japan over a week ago.

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, at least 15 survivors, most of them elderly, have died since the disaster due to stress and fatigue exacerbated by a cold snap that saw blizzards sweep across the region.

In the port town of Kesennuma, the five-storey Inawashiro Hospital had to evacuate all of its 47 inpatients, most of them bedridden elderly with dementia, post-stroke disabilities and other chronic conditions.

Eleven were taken to be with their relatives but the remaining, including a 100-year-old woman, have had to make do with futon mattresses spread on the classroom floors of a nearby elementary school.

The school, which houses another 400 evacuees, has no electricity, no running water and no heating. Like most shelters, it offers minimum drinking water and food, and little else.

Three physicians and 11 nurses, many of whom lost their own houses to the tsunami, use syringes to draw sputum from the throats of patients in a bid to provide some basic relief.

At night they carry candles through the otherwise pitch-black classrooms to check on those in their care.

"In this cold weather, some patients' conditions are deteriorating. We will do our best to keep them as they are until they can be moved," head doctor Mokesada Moriwaki told AFP.

The tsunami tore through the first and second floors of the Inawashiro Hospital, leaving behind nothing but debris.

"Clearing out and bringing back the power. Those are the priorities for this community," said Moriwaki, who lost his house in the disaster and has joined his patients sleeping in the school.

"Unless we do that, we cannot protect lives," he said.

But power is being restored at a frustratingly slow pace and an eventual return to his hospital seems far away.

The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has mobile teams working in northern Miyagi prefecture, said its main concern was chronic diseases among the elderly, including hypertension and diabetes.

With Japan's fast-greying population, the elderly have been prominent victims of this disaster.

"Their treatment has been interrupted so our doctors are looking at restarting the treatment to avoid these elderly people falling into an acute situation," said Eric Ouannes, the general director of MSF Japan.

"For the people affected by the earthquake as well as the tsunamis, there are a number of issues, like the cold and the lack of food and water.

"And the most urgent need is blankets to protect the most vulnerable sections of the population," Ouannes said, adding that there had been numerous cases of hypothermia.

Although food and general supplies are improving even in hardest-hit areas, a lack of petrol has stopped diabetic patients from driving to clinics to receive insulin.

The power outages have also meant no dialysis and some 800 kidney patients in Iwaki city in Fukushima prefecture had to be bussed to Tokyo to find treatment.

Fatigue is taking its toll on medical staff who have been working impossibly long shifts ever since the disaster and for whom food and water is also a problem.

Lee Yang-Sung, a surgeon from Tohoku University Hospital, was working at Inawashiro Hospital on the day of the tsunami and has stayed on to help look after the patients that were evacuated to the shelter.

"A lot of people have been having respiratory problems. We can monitor it, but we cannot do much more than that," Lee said.

"We don't have hot water to keep their bodies clean and bed sores are becoming increasingly common.

"We are reaching our limit."

Radiation levels in Japan not harmful: IAEA

VIENNA, March 18, 2011 (AFP) - Radiation levels currently detected in Japan and beyond in the wake of the nuclear crisis after last week's massive earthquake do not pose any harm to human health, an IAEA expert said Friday.

"Regular dose information is now being received from 47 Japanese cities," Graham Andrew, scientific and technical advisor to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told a regular daily press briefing here.

"Dose rates in Tokyo and other cities remain far from levels which would require action. In other words they are not dangerous to human health," he said.

The IAEA has just sent a radiation monitoring team to Japan to help authorities determine whether any dangerous radiation has been released from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, 250 kilometres (155 miles) northwest of Tokyo.

"First measurements in Tokyo showed no indication of iodine 131 or cesium 137. These are fission products which come from the fuel," Andrew said.

The team would now move to the Fukushima region "as soon as possible" to continue monitoring there.

The IAEA said important data about radiation levels by a fellow UN agency that monitors for clandestine nuclear tests appeared to back up its assessment that current radiation readings posed no threat to human health.

Vienna-based diplomats with access to that data from the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) said radiation had reached Sacramento in southern California in the US, but first readings were well below levels that would be harmful to health.

"I am aware that we have the data, but I haven't studied it and I don't think my colleagues have either," Andrew said.

But it appeared to "confirm what I said earlier."

After the release of radiation from Fukushima, there have been calls for radioactivity readings from the specialist agency's network to be made available.

The CTBTO has calculated the course of the plume of radiation over the Pacific to the United States and other countries.

However, the body is normally only allowed to share the data with member states and not directly with the public.

Nevertheless, it confirmed in a statement that it would share its monitoring data and analysis reports with the IAEA and the World Health Organisation.

The CTBTO uses a global network of hydroacoustic and seismic stations to detect nuclear bomb explosions and its data is also used in tsunami warning systems.

It is currently building a global verification system to detect nuclear explosions in an effort to verify a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing.

When complete, its 337-facility network of seismic, hydroacoustic and infrasound stations will watch underground, the oceans and the atmosphere, and its radionuclide stations will sniff the air for tell-tale signs of a nuclear explosion.

Nearly 270 monitoring stations, of which 63 are radionuclide sensors, are already operational and send data to the International Data Centre in Vienna for processing and analysis.

While the system is designed to detect nuclear blasts, it also picks up a vast amount of data that could potentially be used for civil and scientific purposes.

Turning to the IAEA's overall assessment of the situation at Fukushima currently, Andrew said it had not worsened "significantly" over the past 24 hours, but remains "very serious."

And he refused to speak of "optimism".

"At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant the situation remains very serious. But there has been no signficant worsening since our last briefing," Andrew said, using exactly the same wording as he had done the day before.

The current situation at units 1, 2 and 3 of the plant, whose cores had suffered damage from a number of explosions and fires since the devastating earthquake and tsunami nearly a week ago, "appears to be relatively stable," Andrew said.

The IAEA is to hold a special meeting of its board of governors on Monday, where its chief Yukiya Amano would brief member states on his trip to quake-hit Japan.

YouTube helping with search for missing in Japan

WASHINGTON, March 18, 2011 (AFP) - Google offered up YouTube on Friday to help victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami find missing loved ones.

The Google-owned video-sharing site began posting videos of victims of the disaster appealing for information about friends and family.

The brief videos, most of which are less than a minute long, were taken in shelters around Japan and are posted at youtube.com/shousoku.

The "YouTube Missing Person Finder" is a video version of a "Person Finder" Web tool launched by Google in the immediate aftermath of the quake to help track down missing persons.

The "Person Finder" was tracking nearly 330,000 records as of Friday.

Google is also posting lists of residents of shelters on photo-sharing site Picasa.

Google has established a multi-lingual Crisis Response Page with links to the "Person Finder" and other resources such as emergency hotlines, relief organizations, travel information and maps.

A Google spokesman told AFP on Thursday that a number of employees of the Internet giant were devoting a fifth of their work time or more to building technology to help to deal with the disaster in Japan.

Google has long allowed employees to spend 20 percent of their time on engineering projects that interest them but which don't fall into their usual area of focus.


Hong Kong hoteliers absorb Japan exodus

HONG KONG, March 18, 2011 (AFP) - Hong Kong's hotels, already jammed during their busy peak season, are scrambling to accommodate companies evacuating staff out of quake-hit Japan amid its nuclear crisis.

The luxury Langham Hotel has taken at least 20 corporate bookings at its three Hong Kong properties in recent days, but demand is outstripping supply.

"Hong Kong is a natural safe haven for the companies seeking to relocate their teams out of Japan," a spokesman told AFP.

"(We) have received a large number of enquiries from these companies which are mostly in the financial sector."

The JW Marriott, Four Seasons and Shangri-La have also seen a jump in room requests from firms moving staff, and individuals -- mainly expatriates -- fleeing the stricken country.

"March is traditionally a peak season for hotel bookings, so not many rooms are available anyway," said Lilian Lui, the Kowloon Shangri-La's director of sales and marketing.

"(I'm) not sure if hotels can accommodate all travellers from Japan if there is a huge influx," she added.

But some in Hong Kong are panicking about the potential effects of radiation in the southern Chinese territory, despite being over 1,700 miles from the disaster zone and officials repeatedly saying that it was at little risk.

Japan's nuclear safety agency on Friday raised the Fukushima accident level to five from four on the seven-point international scale of gravity for atomic accidents.

Hong Kong media reported stores being cleared out of ordinary table salt following Internet claims that iodine in the seasoning would guard against radiation exposure, echoing mass panic buying of salt on the Chinese mainland.

They carried pictures of residents -- already nervous after a string of public health disasters -- buying huge sacks of salt, and there were reports of salt re-selling in online auctions as prices soared tenfold or more.
Some people have even loaded up on salty soy sauce, while there has been a run on Japanese products.

Hong Kong's deputy health chief Gabriel Leung rejected the table salt solution, saying "one has to take about 2.5 to five kilograms of (iodized) table salt a day in order to absorb the dose of iodine... in an iodine tablet."

The rush comes after shoppers as far away as California hoarded iodine tablets, reportedly an effective guard against certain types of radiation.

One enterprising expatriate who works in Hong Kong's financial sector cleared a store out of the dietary supplement Spirulina, which has also been the subject of rumours that it can mitigate radiation exposure.

He then resold the HK$300 ($38) bottles for at least double their price.

"At first it was for self-protection. But after I realised there really wasn't any risk here, I sold (the Spirulina) through word of mouth and people I knew," he told AFP, asking not to be named.

"When the market is panicking, people just want to pick up something that may help."

Hong Kong on Friday dispatched a team of about 20 officials to Japan to help residents return to the city or relocate within the stricken country.

"The chance of radiation from Japan reaching Hong Kong in the next few days is slim," the Hong Kong Observatory said Wednesday, and its reassuring line has not changed.

But Jeanette Hoch, a Swedish mother of two who moved to Hong Kong last year, said she and her family might leave if the city was affected by the Japanese crisis.

"I'm worried and am considering leaving if it got worse," Hoch told AFP.

"I know we're a great distance from the (nuclear) plant and I don't feel immediately threatened, but I'd rather be safe than sorry."

Japan disaster dead, missing toll tops 17,000: police - 3rdlead

TOKYO, March 18, 2011 (AFP) - The number of people confirmed dead in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan has hit 6,911, surpassing the toll from the massive tremor in Kobe in 1995, police said Friday.

The number of people unaccounted for rose slightly to 10,316, putting the combined total of dead and missing at 17,227, the National Police Agency said in its latest update. A total of 2,356 people were injured.

In January 1995, a 7.2-magnitude quake struck the western Japanese port city of Kobe, killing 6,434 people.

The March 11 quake is now Japan's deadliest natural disaster since the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which killed more than 142,000 people.

The toll from the disaster one week ago has increased steadily in recent days, and reports suggest it could eventually be much higher.

The mayor of the coastal town of Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture said late Wednesday that the number of missing there was likely to hit 10,000, Kyodo News reported.

On Saturday, public broadcaster NHK reported that around 10,000 people were unaccounted for in the port town of Minamisanriku in the same prefecture.

Amid a mass rescue effort there were grim updates indicating severe loss of life along the battered east coast of Honshu island, where the monster waves destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of homes and other buildings.

US boosts radiation monitors, allays fears in west

LOS ANGELES, March 18, 2011 (AFP) - The United States announced Thursday it was boosting radiation monitoring on the west coast and Pacific territories, as it seeks to allay public concern about fallout from Japan.

While insisting the risk to the United States is minimal, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent extra monitoring units to Alaska, Hawaii and Guam to boost an existing network of 100 air surveillance sites around the country.

No increase had yet been detected, EPA said, although nuclear experts predict that low levels of radiation could be detected on the coast of California as early as Friday.

"We do not anticipate seeing any levels of radiation in the US that have potential public health impact," said Jon Edwards, director of EPA's radiation protection division.

Concerns over radiation from Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant have been keenest in the western mainland states of California, Oregon, and Washington State, as well as Alaska and Hawaii.

California's Emergency Management Department noted that California could detect heightened radiation as early as Friday.

The forecast, by the UN's Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, "indicates that monitoring stations in Southern California may be able to detect extremely low levels of radiation late Friday," it said.

"This projection is based on patterns of Pacific winds at the time of the forecast and is likely to change as weather patterns shift," it added.

It added that if a radioactive plume moved across the Pacific at its current strength, "it may not be detectable and would pose extremely minor health consequences even if trace amounts are detected."

Hawaii is some 4,000 miles (6,500 km) from Japan, while the California coast is up to 5,500 miles (8,800 km).

California's emergency department also noted that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects no harmful levels of radioactivity to reach the United States from Japan "due to the significant distance between the two countries."

President Barack Obama also sought to reassure Americans Thursday, saying: "We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the United States, whether it is the west coast, Hawaii, Alaska or US territories in the Pacific."

The main US manufacturer of potassium iodide pills, which can protect against the effects of radiation, ran out of supplies within hours of the Japanese earthquake, according to the company's boss.

California health director Howard Backer said the public should get things in perspective.

"We understand people's concerns .. Radiation is scary stuff. It can have devastating effects in high doses, but we also need to remember that radiation is part of our natural environment," he said.

"We do not anticipate any amount of radiation that would cause any health effects," he said. "We're 5,000 miles away, which would have a major dispersal effect on any radiation," he added in a conference call with reporters.

Veteran rescuers stunned by Japan damage

OFUNATO, March 18, 2011 (AFP) - Picking through the wreckage of the port city of Ofunato on Japan's northeast coast, burly members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department are an incongruous sight.

The veterans of devastating earthquakes in New Zealand and Haiti, as well as Hurricane Katrina, are part of the first response wave to Japan's worst-ever quake and the tsunami that followed, reducing whole cities to rubble.

They are looking for survivors in the wreckage, but have found only bodies.

Even this 70-strong team of experienced disaster workers have been taken aback by the sheer scale of the devastation caused by the monstrous wave that came ashore on March 11.

"It was like a two-punch thing, where we had the earthquake and then the tsunami," said battalion chief Dave Stone. "It is mind-boggling."

"Just the area that is covered -- I have heard 450 square miles -- it just seems like a huge area damaged," he said, adding that crews had searched five square kilometres (two square miles) in their first two days on the ground.

Each time they find a body, they mark it for the Japanese authorities and move on.

They are still hopeful of finding people alive, but freezing temperatures and the length of time since the catastrophe mean the chances of finding any more survivors is remote.

"We saw a tugboat a mile away from the coast, cars and houses (destroyed) Unfortunately, if there is someone in that vehicle, it is going to be really hard to survive," Stone said.

Four international teams -- the Los Angeles team as well as squads from Britain, China and Fairfax County, Virginia in the United States -- are working in the fishing port, according to United Nations coordinators.

Some areas along the coast have been completely obliterated, with thousands of people missing, but Ofunato -- in devastated Iwate prefecture -- appears to have only a small number of missing people registered so far.

That could be good news, meaning that people were able to escape the wave. Or it could mean the worst -- that entire families were wiped out, leaving no one to report the missing.

Stone, who said the Japanese government had not given his group figures for the number of people unaccounted for in the area, said he was heartened that not many bodies had been found so far.

"When we first looked at the devastation we thought 'There has got to be people trapped in here' but I'm pleasantly surprised that our area has not seen so many bodies," he said.

"At least it appears people heeded the warnings and got out of harm's way," he added.
"We have not found any trapped victims and very few bodies."

The Los Angeles crew -- which includes rescue specialists, emergency room doctors, structural engineers and hazardous materials experts -- has mapped out an escape route in the event of another tsunami or major nuclear incident.

Part of the team is monitoring radiation levels in the area, after the series of explosions and fires at the troubled Fukushima No.1 nuclear plant, to the southwest of Ofunato.

"The main thing we have is the enthusiasm, we want to make a difference,' said Stone.

"We came for search and rescue, and once the government of Japan decides it has gone from rescue to recovery, we either go home or, like in Haiti, we set up a children's hospital or undertake structural surveys."

Facebook can help in disasters: academic

SYDNEY, March 18, 2011 (AFP) - An Australian academic Friday praised the increasing use of social media during disasters, saying there had been a "beautiful display of humanity" on Facebook during recent catastrophes.

Communications expert Gwyneth Howell said she had been prompted to research the use of social media following last year's major earthquake in New Zealand's second city Christchurch -- which caused damage but no deaths.

The University of Western Sydney academic could not have known more disasters were to follow -- floods and cyclones in Queensland, bushfires in Western Australia, a deadlier quake in Christchurch and Japan's quake and tsunami.

Howell said that interviews with people who established Facebook sites to help victims of Queensland's devastating floods in January had demonstrated a "sense of real community" existed in the virtual space.

"That was the thing that struck me...  this beautiful display of humanity and generosity and a sense of 'I don't know you but I want to be able to help'," she told AFP.

"If that's what Facebook is providing and social media is providing people with in times of terrible anguish, I think it's a fantastic resource."

Howell said part of her ongoing research, which will examine how people use social media such as Facebook and Twitter during a time of crisis, will seek to discover how this medium can be deployed to even greater effect.

She said in the Queensland floods, during which Facebook sites offered news of people's whereabouts, help in reuniting pets with their owners and up-to-date information on flood zones, people used social media as an information source.

"They look at news media on television but they go to places like Facebook," Howell said.

Howell added that in the Queensland town of Toowoomba, which was hit with deadly flash floods in which many people were swept away, most people found out about the tragedy when friends changed their status on Facebook.

"That is where people learned about the disaster, they didn't learn it from mainstream media."

She said even as the situation in Japan, still reeling from last week's 9.0-magnitude quake and deadly tsunami, was unfolding, Facebook and Twitter were being used to make tribute pages and send messages of goodwill.

"That sense of community, I think, is outstanding, and it's what we need," she said.

Japan readies fire trucks at stricken nuclear plant

TOKYO, March 18, 2011 (AFP) - Japan prepared to resume cooling operations at a quake-hit nuclear plant Friday using a fleet of fire trucks, as workers racing against time to avert catastrophe ran a power supply cable to the site.

Attempts are being made to douse fuel rods and prevent a calamitous radiation release at the Fukushima No.1 power station, 250 kilometres (155 miles) northeast of Tokyo.

About 20 fire trucks stood at the ready at the facility, which suffered critical damage in the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami a week ago, NHK footage showed. They were expected to be put into use later Friday.

The twin disasters knocked out the plant's reactor cooling systems, sparking a series of explosions and fires. Authorities have since raced to keep the fuel rods inside reactors and containment pools under water.

If they are exposed to air, they could degrade further and emit even more dangerous radioactive material.

Four twin-rotor CH-47 Chinooks ran the first mission to empty large buckets that hold more than seven tonnes of water each onto the facility on Thursday. Five special Self-Defence Forces (SDF) fire trucks later joined the effort.

"We poured water onto the number three reactor yesterday. There is no doubt that water entered the pool, but we have not confirmed how much water is in there," chief government spokesman Yukio Edano told a news conference.

"We will go ahead and continue to discharge water on the reactor this afternoon. The number three reactor is the top priority."

But the defence ministry said the military helicopters would not be used Friday, without giving a reason.

Fluctuating radiation levels at the complex have hindered the cooling operation, repeatedly sparking delays.

Officials at Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), which operates the Fukushima No. 1 plant, said overnight that they believed the effort was bearing fruit.

"When we poured water, we monitored steam rising from the facility. By pouring water, we believe the water turned down the heat. We believe that there was a certain effect," a TEPCO spokesman told reporters.

A nuclear safety agency spokesman said Friday: "White smoke, possibly steam, has been rising from the number two reactor since yesterday and we have not confirmed any sign of stop."

Television footage also showed similar smoke rising from the number three and four reactors.
The fuel-rod pools at reactors three and four may be boiling and are not fully covered by roofs that would reduce radiation leaks.

Workers were also continuing with the crucial task of trying to restore power lines, Edano said, in a bid to reactivate the plant's crippled cooling systems.

The nuclear safety agency said early Friday that TEPCO had managed to get a line from a regional power firm into the plant site which would allow it to restore the cooling system.

"The power cable is near. We would like to speed up this operation as we can then use it to speed up the rest of what we have to do," Edano said.

A TEPCO spokesman earlier told AFP: "If the restoration work is completed, we will be able to activate various electric pumps and pour water into reactors and pools for spent nuclear fuel."
Edano denied that Tokyo had rejected an offer of US assistance.

Paving the way for a more direct role by the US military, the Pentagon said it had sent a team of experts to evaluate what assistance US forces could provide the effort to control plant.

The 9.0-magnitude quake, the biggest on record to strike Japan, knocked down electricity pylons used to supply power to the TEPCO plant.

The French nuclear authority has said the disaster equated to a six on the seven-point international scale for nuclear accidents, ranking the crisis second only in gravity to Chernobyl.

German cyclists quit Taiwan race over Japan fear

TAIPEI, March 18, 2011 (AFP) - The German team has dropped out of a cycling race in Taiwan this month due to concerns over possible radiation risk caused by the Japanese nuclear crisis, the organiser said Friday.

"The cyclists said they were advised by German authorities to avoid visiting the Asia Pacific, not least Taiwan, which is so close to Japan," said Sara Chen, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Taipei Cycling Association.

Among the six team members was Dirk Mueller, a member of Team Nutrixxion Sparkasse and a champion of the 2010 Tour de China.

Eighteen teams from 14 countries, including Britain, Japan and Malaysia, will still compete in the Tour de Taiwan set for March 19-28, Chen said.

The race is designated by the International Cycling Union UCI as a qualifier for the 2012 London Olympic Games.

The Taiwanese government has assured the public that radiation from Japan's quake-hit nuclear power plant is unlikely to affect the island.

Google "20-percent time" going to help Japan

SAN FRANCISCO, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - Legions of Google workers are devoting a fifth of their work time or more to building technology to help to deal with the disaster in Japan.

Google has long allowed employees to spend 20 percent of their time on engineering projects that interest them but which don't fall into their usual area of focus.

The havoc and death wrought on Japan by a powerful earthquake and ensuing tsunami has prompted many "Googlers" to devote their "20-percent time" to crafting Digital Age tools for handling the crisis.

"A lot of 20-percent time is being spent on Japan," Google spokesman Jamie Yood told AFP on Thursday.

"There is definitely a group of people in our Tokyo office spending a lot more than 20 percent of their time on this, and that is supported by Google," he said.

Google has established a multi-lingual Crisis Response Page with links to resources such as emergency hotlines, relief organizations, maps, and a service for finding loved ones.

"Like the rest of the world, we've been transfixed by the images and news coming out of the northeastern part of Japan over the past six days," Google product manager Nobu Makida said in a blog post on Thursday.

"Googlers in Japan and elsewhere around the world have been working around the clock to try and help improve the flow of information."

The Japanese military Thursday used trucks and helicopters to dump tons of water onto the quake-hit Fukushima nuclear plant in efforts to douse fuel rods and prevent a disastrous radiation release.

The operation aims to keep the fuel rods inside reactors and containment pools submerged under water, to stop them from degrading when they are exposed to air and emitting dangerous radioactive material.

Reactor design at Japanese plant raises questions

WASHINGTON, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - The US-made reactors at Fukushima are coming under close scrutiny as experts point to flaws in their original design and the lack of a safety feature that the nuclear industry is only now starting to address.

Five of the six reactors at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant are so-called Mark 1 boiling water reactor (BWR) models, developed by General Electric in the 1960s and installed in Japan in the 1970s.

In the 1970s, criticism amplified that the Mark 1's concrete containment shield, which surrounds the reactor vessel, was vulnerable to explosion caused by a buildup of hydrogen gas if the reactor overheated.

The original design "did not take into account the dynamic loads that could be experienced with a a loss of coolant," Dale Bridenbaugh, who quit as a GE engineer in 1975 over the alleged problem, told ABC News on Wednesday.

Blasts attributed to hydrogen have occurred at four of the Fukushima units, and the containment vessels at the No. 2 and No. 3 reactors have reportedly been damaged but not apparently ruptured.

A partial meltdown of the fuel rods has occurred in the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 reactors but the information from Fukushima -- while sketchy -- indicates the steel shells surrounding the reactors themselves have not been breached, say French safety agencies.

Michael Tetuan, spokesman for GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, the current GE unit developing and selling nuclear plant technology, said there were 32 Mark 1 installations in the world, in addition to 23 in the United States.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) ordered US operators to retrofit Mark 1 plants in the 1980s to strengthen the containment vessel, he said.

"We shared that with our customers overseas ... but I can't tell you if they did indeed retrofit," he said.

"We understand that all of the BWR Mark 1 containment units at Fukushima Daiichi also addressed these issues and implemented modifications in accordance with Japanese regulatory requirements."

"Two potential safety concerns were identified for the GE Mark 1 design," Viktoria Mitlyng, a spokeswoman for the NRC, explained.

First was the ability of the torus -- a donut-shaped unit at the reactor base -- to withstand a high volume of steam that would be diverted to it during an accident.

The second issue was the unit's ability to vent the containment unit to prevent a build-up of hydrogen.

The NRC required the torus units to be reinforced, and hardened vents -- to safely vent any gas buildup -- were installed as well.

"These changes were implemented at all GE Mark 1 plants and inspected by the NRC," she said, referring to US plants.

Questions are also being asked about another aspect of the Mark 1 design, namely the location of cooling tanks which hold highly radioactive spent fuel rods.

They are placed outside the protection of the containment vessel.

These pools are now the source of intense anxiety in Fukushima, because pumps designed to circulate and top up the water that cools the immersed rods failed in the tsunami generated in the quake.

"At least two spent fuel pools at the Fukushima plant have caught fire and are releasing radiation into the atmosphere," said Edwin Lyman, a physicist and expert in nuclear plant design at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an NGO on nuclear safety.

"(...) The United States has 31 boiling-water reactors with similarly situated spent fuel pools that are far more densely packed than those at Fukushima and hence could pose far higher risks if damaged," Lyman said on Wednesday to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

He called on US operators to withdraw some of the rods and place them in dry storage casks in order to reduce the heat load.

In Paris, Olivier Gupta, deputy director general of France's Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), said the location of the fuel-rod pools outside the containment vessel was common to "many nuclear reactors, including in France."

"It's something that has been taken into account for new-generation reactors and will be modified," said Marie-Pierre Comets of another French watchdog agency, the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN).

Singaporeans urged to evacuate Japan disaster area

SINGAPORE, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - Singapore on Thursday urged its citizens within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of a damaged nuclear power plant in Japan to evacuate as emergency crews grappled to avert a nuclear catastrophe.

The foreign ministry also asked Singaporeans in the quake-battered prefectures of Fukushima and Miyagi to "evacuate the area with immediate effect."

"We have been advising our nationals in or around the affected areas to move to safer locations," a ministry statement read.

Singapore also reiterated its travel advisory asking citizens to defer all non-essential travel to Japan.

However, a handful of its nationals within the radius had declined to leave, the ministry stated.
"20 Singaporeans in Sendai have indicated to our mission that they wish to stay behind. Our Embassy will continue to stay in touch with them," it said.

Sendai is approximately 90 kms from Fukushima.

The measure followed an announcement by Singapore Airlines that it had postponed the launch of A380 superjumbo flights to Los Angeles via Tokyo's Narita airport because of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Special Japanese military fire trucks on Thursday unleashed jets of water on a damaged reactor at the quake-hit Fukushima nuclear power plant, public broadcaster NHK reported.

Helicopters had earlier dumped water onto the rods in a bid to lower their temperatures and prevent them from melting and releasing radiation directly into the atmosphere.

Japan nuclear plant firm opens Twitter account

TOKYO, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), which operates the quake-hit Japanese nuclear reactors, opened an official Twitter account late Thursday, immediately drawing more than 117,000 followers.

"We sincerely apologise for causing serious worries and trouble over the accident at Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Power Plant, radiation leak, planned blackouts," TEPCO said in its profile in Japanese on the micro-blogging site.

TEPCO said it planned to provide information about radiation leaks and blackouts through its Twitter blog, which has already attracted 117,838 followers in the first six hours with only two messages.

Its first tweet was about the threat of major power blackouts in the capital unless electricity use was reduced in the aftermath of the massive earthquake and tsunami.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Sunday he had authorised managed outages to prevent any sudden major supply disruption, as electricity supply has fallen sharply since the quake-tsunami disaster hit power plants on Friday.

The Tokyo-based power company follows accounts of local news media, regional authorities, Twitter users offering messages on earthquake alerts and support for quake victims.

TEPCO has been under fire over delays in disclosing information related to the plant, where helicopters dumped tonnes of water in a desperate bid to cool reactors crippled by the earthquake to prevent a catastrophic meltdown.

Washington Post suspends reporter for plagiarism

WASHINGTON, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - The Washington Post has suspended a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for three months for lifting material from another US newspaper.

Sari Horwitz, who won America's top journalism award with a colleague in 2002, was found to have used "substantial" parts of two articles from the Arizona Republic in her stories without attribution, the newspaper said.

The stories involved the January shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that left US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords severely wounded and six other people dead, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl, the Post said.

In an editor's note, the Post apologized to the Arizona Republic and readers "for this serious lapse.

"It is the Post's policy that the use of material from other newspapers or sources must be properly attributed," it said.

Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli told the newspaper no other instances of plagiarism by Horwitz had been found in a review of her work this year.

The Post said Horwitz began working at the newspaper in 1984 and won a Pulitzer with a colleague in 2002 for reporting about the deaths of foster children while in the care of Washington child-welfare authorities.

It said she was also a member of reporting teams that jointly won Pulitzers in 1998 and 2007.
Horwitz apologized in a statement published by the Post.

"I am deeply sorry. To our readers, my friends and colleagues, my editors, and to the paper I love, I want to apologize," she said.

"Under the pressure of tight deadlines, I did something I have never done in my entire career. I used another newspaper's work as if it were my own. It was wrong. It was inexcusable. And it is one of the cardinal sins in journalism."


NY Times unveils digital subscription plan

WASHINGTON, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - The New York Times on Thursday unveiled its long-awaited plan to begin charging for full access to its website, offering 20 free articles a month before readers will be asked to pay.

Times publisher Arther Sulzberger announced the newspaper's move to a digital subscription model in a letter to readers published at NYTimes.com.

Sulzberger said digital subscriptions will begin on Thursday in Canada to "fine-tune the customer experience" and will be extended to the United States and the rest of the world on March 28.

He said home delivery subscribers to the print edition of the Times and the International Herald Tribune, a Paris-based Times co. newspaper, will have full and free access to NYTimes.com.
Non-subscribers can view 20 articles a month for free before being asked to become a digital subscriber.

The Times is offering three digital subscription packages.

Full access to NYTimes.com and the newspaper's smartphone application will cost $15 for four weeks while full access to the website and a tablet computer application will cost $20 for four weeks.

Full access to NYTimes.com and both smartphone and tablet applications is $35 for four weeks.

Sulzberger said the move is a "significant transition" for the Times and "one that will strengthen our ability to provide high-quality journalism to readers around the world and on any platform."

Like other US newspapers, The New York Times has been struggling with declining print advertising revenue, falling circulation and the migration of readers to free news online.

The News Corp.-owned Wall Street Journal is currently the only major US newspaper charging readers for full access to its website and other US publishers have been waiting for the Times to unveil its online plan.

Besides The New York Times and International Herald Tribune, the Times Co. also owns The Boston Globe and a dozen other dailies.

Merkel vows quick switch to renewable energy

BERLIN, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - Angela Merkel vowed Thursday that Germany would accelerate the transition to renewable energy as Europe's top economy began rethinking its disputed nuclear policy in the light of events in Japan.

"We want to reach the age of renewable energy as soon as possible. That is our goal," the chancellor told parliament during a fiery speech that drew frequent opposition jeers, indicating the depth of passion over the issue.

Merkel called for a "measured exit" from nuclear power and said "everything would be put under the microscope" during a three-month period to consider the future of energy policy in Germany.

On Monday, she announced the three-month moratorium on plans approved last year to postpone by more than a decade until the mid-2030s when the last of Germany's 17 nuclear reactors are turned off.

"We cannot and should not just go back to business as usual," Merkel told parliament.

On Tuesday, she ordered the temporary shutdown of Germany's seven oldest nuclear reactors while authorities conduct safety probes. At least one was mothballed for good.

"When the apparently impossible happens in such a highly developed country as Japan ... then the whole situation changes," she said.

She added switching to renewable energy would require a "broad consensus" in society and in parliament, amid rowdy scenes as the Social Democrats (SPD) and ecologist Greens vociferously shouted their opposition to her plans.

"We want to go back to a nuclear exit in 2020," said SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel.

Polls consistently show that nuclear power is unpopular in the country and protests against it regularly attract large crowds.

And the political fallout for Merkel of the heated nuclear debate could well be highly damaging.

In a protest on Saturday, tens of thousands formed a 45-kilometre (28-mile) human chain between a nuclear plant and Stuttgart. The demo was planned beforehand, but events in Japan swelled numbers.

It took place in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, where on March 27, Merkel's centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) face losing power after 58 years in charge in a vital state election.

The SPD in Baden-Wuerttemberg have vowed to switch off the state's two oldest nuclear power stations by 2020 if they win the election. Polls suggest a tight race.

Gabriel accused Merkel of "electioneering" ahead of the vote.

Foreigners flee Japan as warnings mount

TOKYO, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - Airline tickets sold out Thursday and firms hired private jets to move staff out as foreign governments told their nationals to get out of Tokyo, fearing the nuclear crisis could escalate.

The United States, Australia and several European nations urged their citizens in the sprawling capital and the quake-hit area northeast of there to leave, but some people were trying to get out of Japan altogether.

The US State Department chartered flights for Americans wishing to flee and authorised its embassy staff and their families to leave the country, after US nuclear regulators questioned safety measures taken by the Japanese.

With experts offering contradictory opinions on how serious the situation is at the Fukushima atomic plant 250 kilometres (155 miles) northeast of Tokyo, one French businessman with operations in Japan said his company was "struggling to find a consensus".

He said if the company evacuated foreign staff, it would also have to offer passage to worried locals.

"There is a huge perception gap between the Japanese in Tokyo and the group's management in France," the man told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"This is not a company accustomed to working in countries at risk, so we do not know how to cope with such a situation. There is not even a crisis-management team in Paris."

China moved thousands of its citizens to Tokyo for evacuation from the country and France said it was assigning two government planes to pull its people out.

Several large Nordic companies, including IKEA and H&M, offered to help their Japanese employees leave Tokyo and surrounding areas and relocate further south.

Indian IT firms were helping employees to leave, with software firm L&T Infotech saying it had chartered a plane to take all 185 of its staff and their families out of Japan.

The International Bankers' Association said it was "business as usual" for major firms, but an exodus of foreign professionals saw demand surge for private jets, according to Asian operators.

Commercial flights were also under pressure, with just a handful of seats left on most services from Narita -- which serves Tokyo -- to Hong Kong, Singapore or Seoul.

Demand was driving the average price of a one-way ticket above $3,000, far higher than the normal price.

Australia's Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said it was the "breakdown of essential services" that had prompted Canberra's evacuation warning, not merely radiation fears, with schools closed and power and transport badly disrupted.

Britain advised its citizens to consider leaving Tokyo and northeastern Japan though British officials said there is still "no real human health issue that people should be concerned about".

Germany, Italy and The Netherlands also advised their nationals to leave the sprawling capital or refrain from travelling to the northeastern region which was destroyed by the 9.0-strength quake and tsunami.

Cathay Pacific was running a special offer for people wishing to flee Japan for Hong Kong and Vietnam Airlines said it would lay on larger planes on its Tokyo-Hanoi route, offering big discounts for Vietnamese wishing to return.

Switzerland promised charter flights if commercial carriers couldn't meet demand and Russia was to begin evacuating dependents of its diplomatic and commercial personnel in Tokyo on Friday.

Hotels were booked out in the western hub of Osaka, with foreigners and Japanese alike descending there from Tokyo in the search for accommodation and office space, including foreign embassies.

Indonesian man escapes Aceh and Japan tsunamis

JAKARTA, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - An Indonesian man said Thursday that he had escaped both the 2004 tsunami in Aceh and last week's wave in Japan.

Doctoral student Zahrul Fuadi, 39, who is from the Indonesian province, was at a seminar at a university campus in Sendai when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck, triggering a tsunami that devastated Japan's northeastern coast.

Seven years ago, the engineer had to flee from the wall of water that killed 168,000 people in his own country.

"I have survived two monumental disasters. I'm very grateful, not many people have experienced two big disasters and survived," Fuadi told AFP.

His house in Simpang Mesra village, Banda Aceh, was destroyed in the 2004 disaster, which followed a 9.3-magnitude quake.

Then, he said, "we were at my house when the quake happened. Me, my wife and my two children escaped from the tsunami by riding a motorcycle. We went very far from my house because we were so afraid.

"Actually I'm more scared of tsunamis than earthquakes. I was running away from the Aceh tsunami back then and thinking that was the end of the world," he said.

Fuadi is a faculty member at Syah Kuala University in Banda Aceh, and his family moved to Sendai after he received a scholarship to complete his doctorate at Tohoku University in the town.

He has been living in Japan for the past six years, but he and his family were spared by last week's tsunami because the campus is 20 kilometres (12.4 miles) from the coast.

Fuadi returned to Indonesia on Tuesday and has flown back to Aceh.

"I plan to return to Sendai as I have to finish some work. But now it's the nuclear radiation that I'm afraid of," he said.

Indonesia was the nation hardest hit in the 2004 tsunami, with more than three-quarters of the 220,000 victims around the Indian Ocean.

hina urges 'timely, precise' Japan nuclear info

BEIJING, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - China on Thursday urged Japan to release "timely and precise" information on its unfolding nuclear crisis, amid growing Chinese fear of radioactive contamination from its stricken neighbour.

"We hope the Japanese side will release information, as well as its evaluation and prediction of the situation, to the public in a timely and precise manner," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.

Japan disaster dead, missing at 14,650: police

TOKYO, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - The official number of dead and missing after a devastating earthquake and tsunami that flattened Japan's northeast coast has hit 14,650, police said Thursday, a rise of nearly 1,000 in just a few hours.

The number of confirmed dead from Friday's twin disasters rose to 5,321, while the official number of missing increased to 9,329, the national police agency said in its latest update.
A total of 2,383 people were injured in the disaster.

But reports have indicated that the final toll could be much higher.

The mayor of the coastal town of Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture said late Wednesday that the number of missing there was likely to hit 10,000, Kyodo News reported.

On Saturday, public broadcaster NHK reported that around 10,000 people were unaccounted for in the port town of Minamisanriku in the same prefecture.

Amid a mass rescue effort there were grim updates indicating severe loss of life along the battered east coast of Honshu island, where the monster waves destroyed or damaged more than 55,380 homes and other buildings.

Social network fans look to calm the update storm

AUSTIN, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - Social networking fanatics deluged by updates and posts are turning to services that promise more intimate communities increasingly tied to real world activities.

Startups and software applications that were hits among technology trendsetters at a renowned South By Southwest Interactive (SXSW) festival in Texas focused on using smartphones to collaborate or cavort with friends.

"Facebook has lost its ability to be personal and private," said Brian Magierski, the chief executive of Appconomy, the Texas startup behind group messaging service GroupedIn. "We need to make social personal again."

Group messaging services let people exchange smartphone text missives to collaborate and coordinate with selected circles, such as clubs, teams, churches, schools and car pools.

"You are seeing a lot of different takes at this broad problem," Magierski said. "It's a 500 million person problem -- a Facebook size problem."

Social networking star Facebook has more than half a billion users.

Startups are seeing opportunity in connecting people to the small number of folks they truly share their lives with, and then linking them to local places, happenings or opportunities relevant to their interests.

"Facebook and Twitter don't go away by any stretch," Magierski said. "I still want to stay connected to the people I played hockey with in college, but they aren't the ten people I want to stay connected with all the time."

The slew of startups at SXSW included Evri, which lets people personalize news feeds based on topics getting a lot of attention in individual "social graphs" at Facebook, Twitter or other online venues.

"We search the Web and distill the signal from the noise into topics people really care about," said Evri chief executive Will Hunsinger.

"We essentially create an on-the-fly news magazine of the things you are most passionate about."

Evri, which is backed by funding from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Vulcan Capital, provided a sneak peak at an application being crafted for Apple's popular iPad tablet computers.

"We think the table form factor is ideally suited for content discovery and consumption," Hunsinger said.

Lori James and Barbara Perfetti were at SXSW to introduce an online AreCafe that lets people form cliques based on what types of books they prefer.

The women said that the idea came from the large community that sprang up unsolicited at allromance.com, their website devoted to romance novels.

"We decided to develop the AreCafe because people are on Facebook and Twitter and that is a big ocean of people," James told AFP.

"You're friending your mom, your neighbor, your co-worker, and your preacher, and you might not want them to know about the spicy romance novels you are reading," she said.

"They might not have a lot to contribute to that conversation."

The virtual cafe features author interviews, book videos, and literature news along with communities based on genres.

ZeneScene showed off an application that uses location capabilities in smartphones to connect people with hip social happenings "in their own backyards."

Once people check in at a venue using increasingly popular services such as FourSquare or Gowalla they can start conversations with other smartphone lovers by posting images or taking polls with newly-launched Locaii software.

"It's a location-based conversation starter," said Locaii co-founder Aaron Bannister. "You can list your favorite locations and get notified when cool things are going on there."

Startup LifeKraze aims to get Internet users to embrace healthy, active lifestyles using the power of personal social networks on smartphones.

LifeKraze lets friends award each other points for activities ranging from walking pups or eating salads to competing in marathons or other sports. Points can be cashed in for rewards at shops that partner with the service.

"We are connecting the outside world with what you are doing online," said Michelle Warren, of LifeKraze.

Other startups featuring new ways to use mobile devices for social networking, shopping, geo-location or augmented reality will vie for the hearts of tech-savvy attendees at the annual gathering.

Chinese snap up salt amid Japan nuclear scare

BEIJING, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - Chinese retailers on Thursday reported panic buying of salt, partly because shoppers believe it could help ward off the effects of potential radioactivity from Japan's crippled nuclear power plant.

"Salt sold out early this morning," an employee with a branch of French supermarket chain Carrefour in Shanghai told AFP, declining to give her name.

She said all the salt was snapped up within 30 minutes of the store's opening on Thursday by anxious shoppers, adding that many customers reported salt prices at other shops in the city had risen as much as six-fold.

A staff member at a supermarket in the southern city of Guangzhou said salt demand had spiked so sharply that the store had imposed temporary limits on what each customer can buy.

"There are many people queueing to buy iodised salt in our store. We have to control it. One client can only buy two bags of salt," she said.

Salt sold in China is mostly iodised as part of a national policy to prevent iodine deficiency disorders.

Chinese consumers are now hoping iodine in the salt can reduce the impact of possible radioactivity as the crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant deepened.

But state-run China National Radio said the iodine content of edible salt in the country averages between 20-30 microgrammes per kilogramme, quoting experts saying that is too low to have any effect.

Some shoppers apparently also believe future salt shipments could be contaminated by the disaster and were buying now to stock up on supply, Xinhua news agency reported.

Radioactive iodine from a nuclear event can pollute the air and contaminate the food supply, while thyroid glands quickly absorb the radioactive substance, causing damage, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.

Iodide pills can block radioactive iodine from being taken into the thyroid, it explained.

The official China Daily said Thursday cydiodine tablets had sold out at many pharmacies in cities including Beijing and Shanghai after the earthquake and monster tsunami struck Japan.

Anxiety has been growing in China over the potential harmful effects of radiation emissions from its Asian neighbour, despite repeated Chinese government announcements that the country faces no imminent health threat.

Tainted pork is latest food scandal to hit China

SHANGHAI, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - China has been hit by a fresh food scandal after the country's largest meat processor was forced to apologise when an illegal additive was reportedly found in some of its pork products.

Henan Shuanghui Investment and Development Co said it had halted operations at one of its subsidiaries while authorities investigate the case, in a statement to the Shenzhen Stock Exchange Wednesday, where it is listed.

In a separate statement dated Wednesday its parent Shuanghui Group expressed a "deep apology for the incident in the unit, which had troubled consumers".

The news follows the 2008 milk scandal in which a chemical was found to have been added to watered-down milk, leading to the deaths of several babies and left thousands sick.

Products marketed under Shuanghui Group's Shineway brand were produced from pigs that were fed clenbuterol, an additive that can speed up muscle building and fat burning to produce leaner pork, the reports said.

The additive, known among farmers as "lean meat powder", is banned in China because if eaten by humans it can lead to dizziness, heart palpitations and profuse sweating, the reports said.

The listed company said its shares were suspended Wednesday until official findings were released "to avoid major impact on the company's stock price".

"If it spreads to other producers, it will send shockwaves across the nation's meat industry, similar to the 2008 milk scandal," Zhao Yong, an industry analyst with Haitong Securities, told the Global Times newspaper on Thursday.

As supermarkets pulled Shineway products from their shelves, the China Meat Association tried play down the possibility that tainted pork was widespread.

"It's only an isolated case and was only found in one Shuanghui company. It won't bring destructive damage to either the industry or Shuanghui," the industry association's spokesman, He Zhonghua, told the Global Times.

China reported 18 outbreaks of food-related clenbuterol poisoning between 1998 and 2007, according to a report on the Shanghai Food Safety website. One person died and more than 1,700 others fell ill, the website said.

The latest batch of tainted pork products was first reported by state broadcaster China Central Television earlier this week.

China's dairy industry still has yet to fully recover from the loss of trust caused by the 2008 milk scandal where melamine, normally used to make plastics, was added to watered-down milk to make it seem higher in protein.

Twenty-two dairy producers were found to have sold products laced with melamine that killed at least six babies and left nearly 300,000 others ill.

TEPCO workers offer to go to stricken atomic plant

TOKYO, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - Employees of Tokyo Electric Power Co, the operator of a quake-hit Japanese nuclear plant, and other industry firms have volunteered to join efforts to control the escalating crisis, local media said.

TEPCO put out a call for about 20 volunteers to join the battle to bring the situation under control at the Fukushima No.1 plant, where last week's quake and tsunami knocked out the reactor cooling systems, Jiji Press reported.

Offers came in from TEPCO employees and others, including a 59-year-old man with four decades of experience working at nuclear power stations for a regional power company and was due to retire in six months, the report said.

Officials at TEPCO were not immediately available Thursday to confirm the reports.

Japanese military helicopters dumped water Thursday on the stricken reactors at the Fukushima facility in a bid to douse fuel rods and prevent a disastrous radiation release.

The operation aims to keep the fuel rods inside reactors and containment pools submerged under water, to stop them from degrading when they are exposed to air and emitting dangerous radioactive material.

On Twitter, one woman expressed her pride -- and anguish -- at the news that her father had offered to take part in the risky operation at the plant.

"I fought back tears when I heard father, who is to retire in half a year, volunteered to go," the message read.

"He said 'The future of nuclear power generation depends on how we'll cope with this. I'll go with a sense of mission'... I've never been more proud of him."

AFP was not immediately able to confirm if the Twitter posts referred to the same man mentioned in the Jiji report.

Singapore woman gives $780,000 for Japan

SINGAPORE, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - A Singaporean woman has donated Sg$1 million ($780,000), double the amount given by the Singapore government, to aid relief efforts in Japan, local reports and officials said Thursday.

The million-dollar cheque from Elaine Low was handed over to Japan's ambassador to Singapore, Yoichi Suzuki, on Wednesday, an official with the Japanese embassy told AFP.

Low, whose family runs an Indonesia-based coal mining business that imports equipment from Japan and also supplies coal to Japanese power plants, said she wanted to do her bit to help out the Japanese affected by the disaster.

"My family and I feel that it's an unfortunate disaster and wanted to offer our help," Low, 24, was quoted as saying in the Straits Times newspaper.

On Tuesday, the Singapore government launched a fund-raising drive for victims of Japan's killer earthquake and tsunami by giving the local Red Cross Sg$500,000 in seed money.

The official total of dead and missing on Japan's northeast coast has passed 13,000, police said Thursday.

The confirmed dead from Friday's twin disasters stood at 5,178, while the official number of missing remained at 8,606, the national police agency said in its latest update.

Tourists could see SE Asia on single visa

JAKARTA, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - Travellers could soon be able surf in Bali, shop in Singapore and eat spicy street food in Thailand before crossing into Cambodia and cruising the Mekong in Vietnam -- all on a single tourist visa.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is working on a plan that would open the region to foreign tourists in the same way Europe's unified visa system has streamlined travel.

"You would just have to apply for one visa and you could then visit all the countries using that visa," said Eddy Krisneidi, an official at the Jakarta-based ASEAN Secretariat, which recently released its Tourism Strategic Plan for the next five years.

With attractions ranging from jungle-covered temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia to five-star beach resorts in Bali, Southeast Asia is a region that tempts travellers from all walks of life.

ASEAN countries recorded more than 65 million foreign visitor arrivals in 2009. Malaysia led the field, followed by Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Brunei.

Analysts say visitor numbers could be boosted by slashing the time-consuming and confusing visa requirements for each of ASEAN's 10 countries, which range from vibrant developing democracies to isolated, military-dominated Myanmar.

While some allow foreigners to simply purchase visas on arrival, others require wads of paperwork, photos and up to a week to issue the required stamp.

"One of the major concerns of the industry, as well as visitors, is the difficulty of obtaining visas, a series of widely differing regulations and information needs for visas," ASEAN's strategic plan states.

It is a view shared by Stuart McDonald, who runs an online travel forum for Southeast Asia.

"One of the most common questions that we see on travelfish.org is people asking visa questions: What kind of visa can I get? How long is it valid for? What does it cost?," said the Australian who travels extensively in Asia.

"The rules change all the time and it introduces a level of uncertainty and confusion that the industry can do without."

The concept of a single visa has wide support among tourism bodies across Southeast Asia.

"It would definitely benefit all the countries in this region, especially Thailand," Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Suraphon Svetasreni said, noting that Thailand is a "good strategic location" for overland travelling as it acts as a bridge to other countries.

Svetasreni said it is only a matter of time until the region's visa system is liberalised.

"ASEAN will be considered as a single destination, so it makes sense to apply for a single visa to travel to any country in ASEAN," he said.

Despite its appeal, others are less optimistic that a single visa will become a reality anytime soon.

"Travel procedures have to be simplified but it is not going to be easy because each country may have their own foreign policy," Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel inbound tourism vice president Arul Das said.

ASEAN is yet to outline the cost or length of stay for its planned single tourist visa. But it acknowledges it could take several years to introduce.

"The establishment of such a visa will not likely occur in the next five years due to barriers of technology, political issues, concerns of sovereignty and security and the different visa systems in the member states," its strategic plan states.

The single visa is one of several initiatives being worked on by ASEAN to boost tourism in the region.
The organisation is also overseeing the creation of regional tourism standards which would apply to things such as accommodation, food and public toilets.

"There are already clear indications that major tour operators are now very much concerned with a wide range of standards in a destination," the plan states.

"Those destinations that are able to satisfy those increasingly high standards will have a distinct position of advantage."

Japan crisis spotlights China nuclear concerns

BEIJING, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - The atomic crisis sparked by Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami is throwing a spotlight on energy-hungry China's own plans to build dozens of nuclear power plants despite questions over safety.

In a nod to mounting concerns following Japan's troubles, China on Wednesday ordered safety inspections of its nuclear facilities and temporarily suspended approval for new nuclear projects pending formulation of new safety rules.

But it remains to be seen whether the world's second-largest economy will significantly slow down a national nuclear drive dogged by questions over regulation and emergency preparedness.

China operates 13 nuclear reactors, all on its lengthy coastline -- and thus also potentially vulnerable to a tsunami.

More than two dozen others are being built -- estimated to account for 40 percent of all reactors being constructed worldwide -- while 50 more are on the drawing board.

China is going nuclear to meet soaring energy demand and reduce its world-leading fossil fuel emissions, but many say proper safeguards are not yet in place in a nation already prone to safety scares and industrial accidents.

"There has been an inter-agency debate in China about the speed of which nuclear energy needs to be developed," Mark Hibbs, senior associate for the Carnegie Endowment's nuclear policy programme, told AFP.

"The faster the Chinese programme expands, the more challenging it will be for the Chinese safety authorities to ensure that safety standards are being adhered to."

In 2008, China announced a goal of up to 40 gigawatts of installed nuclear capacity -- or about 40 reactors -- by 2020, but state media reports have said up to 80 gigawatts could be installed by then.

Experts have warned that the crisis in Japan, where workers are battling to avert a meltdown at a nuclear plant damaged by last Friday's enormous earthquake and tsunami, should provoke a global rethink of atomic power.

But Zhang Lijun, vice minister of environmental protection, said Saturday that while China will learn from Japan's problems, it "will not change its determination and plans for developing nuclear power."

China's plans are shadowed by a lack of transparency and a National Nuclear Safety Administration that is hiring hundreds of young and inexperienced regulators as it struggles to keep up with building activity, Hibbs said.

They face the daunting task of overseeing China's "panoply" of reactor designs from France, Russia, Canada and the United States, he added.

Hibbs also said some foreign safety experts working with the Chinese have already raised fears over the use of counterfeit -- and potentially faulty -- equipment made in China and being used in plant construction.

"They have to prevent counterfeit equipment from being used, make sure all the equipment in the Chinese nuclear programme is legitimate, certified and meets very rigid quality standards," Hibbs said.

Corruption has emerged as another worry after the head of the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), Kang Rixin, was sacked in 2009 and placed under investigation for "a serious disciplinary matter" -- a term that usually refers to graft.

Chen Jinyuan, a nuclear safety inspector at the environmental protection ministry, was quoted Wednesday by state media saying China badly needed an "atomic energy law."

Otherwise, responsibilities for nuclear power development, supervision, and contingency planning were not legally defined, he said.

Wednesday's order by the State Council, or cabinet, to temporarily halt new nuclear approvals pending safety rules could ease some concerns, but experts say much more needs to be done.

China has suffered its own share of earthquakes, including an 8.0-magnitude disaster in the southwestern Sichuan region in 2008 that left 87,000 people dead or missing.

"As far as designing an emergency response plan to accidents, we need to make more and better assessments on the impact of natural disasters," Chen Hao, head of the Sichuan Nuclear Energy Institute, told AFP.

"As far as the speed in which China is developing nuclear energy, I think we need to be more cautious. No matter if it is choosing sites or building the projects, we need to be more cautious in all areas."

IAEA warned Japan over nuclear quake risk: WikiLeaks

LONDON, March 17, 2011 (AFP) - The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned Japan two years ago that a strong earthquake could pose a "serious problem" for its nuclear power stations, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported.

An IAEA expert expressed concern that the Japanese reactors were only designed to withstand magnitude 7.0 tremors, according to a December 2008 US diplomatic cable obtained by the WikiLeaks website, Telegraph reported.

The IAEA official told a meeting of the G8's Nuclear Safety and Security Group in Tokyo in 2008 that Japan's safety guidelines were outdated, the cable said.

"He (the IAEA official) explained that safety guides for seismic safety have only been revised three times in the last 35 years and that the IAEA is now re-examining them," it added.

"Also, the presenter noted recent earthquakes in some cases have exceeded the design basis for some nuclear plants, and that this is a serious problem that is now driving seismic safety work," it added.

The government responded by building an emergency response centre at the Fukushima site, but the plant was still only designed to withstand a 7.0 quake.

Engineers Wednesday battled to restore the cooling system at the Fukushima No. 1 plant which was knocked out by last Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami, making a meltdown possible.

Another cable sent in March 2006 showed that the Japanese government had opposed a court order to close a plant in the country's west over doubts about its ability to withstand an earthquake.

According to the cable, Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency believed the reactor was "safe" and that "all safety analyses were appropriately conducted."

Media exaggerates Japan disaster, US radio host says

WASHINGTON, March 16, 2011 (AFP) - Right-wing US radio host Rush Limbaugh said on his show Wednesday that the media is overplaying the nuclear crisis in Japan after last week's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami.

"We have all these people on the media who we've never heard of, never heard from ever before, making calls to evacuate," Limbaugh said on his show on Premiere Radio Networks.

He singled out a European Union organization for criticism, saying it was exaggerating the situation in Japan, where Friday's quake and tsunami have left thousands dead or missing, and touched off a nuclear crisis.

"Something called the EU energy agent is saying all this is uncontrollable.

"We had a panic story yesterday that one of the reactors was in the process of meltdown, and it was so bad all the workers had been sent out.

"Then we realized it was an error in translation -- they were just temporarily dispatched and were sent back in," he said.

The host of what is said to be the most listened-to radio show in America compared the disaster in Japan to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which he also insisted was not as bad as media reports said it was.

"Let's go back to the BP oil spill. Do you remember at the end of it all they couldn't find very much oil, and yet it was the worst disaster ever?

"It wasn't the catastrophe it was portrayed to be," he said, saying that he has had "emails from people who are living in Tokyo, saying 'Yeah, we're playing golf today, people are going about their business and living.'

"The reports are this country's on the verge of sinking, the whole country, the whole island is on the verge of disappearing.

"Remember the BP oil spill, the worst oil spill ever except there wasn't any oil," he said.

Eleven rig workers died when a BP-leased rig exploded some 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the coast of Louisiana in April last year, sending a record 4.9 million barrels of toxic crude spewing into the Gulf.

It took three months to cap the well, while leaking oil tainted marshlands, brought a halt to commercial fishing and shrimping in large areas of the Gulf, and crippled tourism.

US military blocks websites for Japan aid effort

WASHINGTON, March 16, 2011 (AFP) - The US military has banned access to popular commercial websites on its computer network to free up bandwidth for relief efforts in Japan, officials said Wednesday.

The "partial ban" applied to 13 sites including YouTube, eBay, Amazon, MTV and ESPN, but not Facebook, US Cyber Command officers said.

"This action is in no way a reflection on any specific site or the content of any specific site," the Pentagon said in a statement.

The move was taken as a precaution "in response to the needs of the military in a time of extreme demand on all circuits and networks in a region of the world that has been devastated by geological activity," it said.

The step was requested by US Pacific Command, which is overseeing the disaster relief efforts.

The US military has ordered 15 naval ships to Japanese waters in a massive aid operation after Japan's deadly quake and tsunami, amid fears of an atomic meltdown after damage to the Fukushima power plant.

China overtakes Britain as second biggest art market

THE HAGUE, March 16, 2011 (AFP) - China overtook Britain as the world's second biggest market for art and antiques last year, said a report from the European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf) opening in the Netherlands Thursday.

The United States continued to dominate the international market with a share of 34 percent, said the report from European Fine Art Foundation, organisers of what claims to be the world's leading art and antiques fair.

"China became the world's second largest art market in 2010 with a global share of 23 percent, overtaking the UK for the first time," it said, referring to a "seismic change in geographical distribution".

"Auction sales in China totalled almost six billion euros ($8.5 billion) in 2010."

The international market rose 52 percent from a low point in 2009, said the statement, as luxury spending rose on the back of the global economic recovery.

The European Union's share of the market was 37 percent, a drop of 16 percent from a high in 2003.

The foundation warned that an EU "art tax" due to be extended to Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and Austria next year "risks further damaging an already weakened European art and antiques market by encouraging vendors to sell elsewhere".

Tefaf will feature about 260 exhibitors in the southern Dutch city of Maastricht for 10 days from Thursday.

One of the highlights for this year's edition, the 24th, is a 1658 masterpiece by Golden Age Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, entitled "Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo", priced at $47 million.

Vendors from 16 countries will exhibit more than 30,000 paintings, sculptures, pieces of furniture, jewellery, procelain, clothing and rare manuscripts.

Water cannon deployed at Japan nuclear plant: report

TOKYO, March 16, 2011 (AFP) - A police water cannon was deployed near an earthquake-hit Japanese nuclear power plant Wednesday to help pour water into a containment pool holding spent fuel rods, Jiji Press news agency reported.

The crowd-control vehicle, from Tokyo's Metropolitan Police Department, was expected to reach the Fukushima No.1 plant early morning Thursday and start operations as soon as it is ready, Jiji reported.

Workers at the plant, run by Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), have struggled to top up water levels as the rods have heated up the water, threatening to evaporate it and expose the rods to air, which would send out radioactive material.

A TEPCO official confirmed that the police department would help their efforts with a water cannon but he had no more details.

A Japanese military helicopter was deployed earlier Wednesday on a mission to dump water from a huge bucket onto the fuel rods, but returned due to a high level of radiation above the reactors and containment pool before night fell.

Meanwhile the US military said Wednesday it had delivered high-pressure water pumps to Japan to help cool the nuclear power plant as part of the US aid effort amid Japan's worst crisis since World War II.

"High-pressure water pumps were offloaded from USNS Safeguard in Yokosuka last night and delivered to Yokota Air Force Base (in Tokyo) for further transfer to the government of Japan for employment at the Fukushima power plant," the US Pacific Fleet said in a statement.

Google Chrome scores at SXSW Interactive awards

AUSTIN, March 16, 2011 (AFP) - A music and imagery website that shows off capabilities of Google's Chrome Web browser won top honors at a South By Southwest Interactive (SXSW) festival known for its technology trendsetters.

The Wilderness Downtown was declared Best of Show at an awards ceremony late Tuesday that capped the Internet-oriented portion of the festival.

"This was a labor of love for a lot of people," said Radical Media music video director Chris Milk, who has worked with artists such as U2, Green Day, Courtney Love and Arcade Fire. "It would not have been possible without Google."

TheWildernessDowntown.com combines rich and smooth image streaming capabilities of HTML5 video coding technology in Chrome with music by Grammy-winning Arcade Fire to create an "interactive film."

"The Wilderness Downtown is meant to be a new type of video," Google's Thomas Gayno told AFP after the award ceremony.

"For Google it is very compelling because it allows us to push the browser to its limits and move the Web forward."

Visitors to the website enter addresses where they lived while growing up to be taken on nostalgic trips by weaving Google Maps and Street View images with the song "We Used to Wait."

"It takes you on a wonderful journey all synchronized with music," Gayno said. "It is like choreography of browser windows."

US Internet coupon deals website Groupon was voted winner of a People's Choice award in keeping with a trend of SXSW goers using smartphones to connect with friends, deals, and happenings in the real world.

Founded in 2008, Chicago-based Groupon offers discounts to its members on retail goods and services, offering one localized deal a day.

A group text messaging service aptly named GroupMe was crowned the "Breakout Digital Trend" at SXSW.

Startups that let friends join in group text message conversations were hot properties with SXSW goers eager to swap discoveries, news, opinions and party venues with circles of friends.

In the weeks before SXSW kicked off, GroupMe added location and picture sharing and made it possible for users to send conversation invitations to friends at social networking hotspots Facebook and Twitter.

Longtime language teaching firm Rosetta Stone was declared best education resource for its Version 4 Totale system, while satirical publication The Onion won a "classic" category devoted to projects launched before January 2010.

California startup ifixit.com, born of one man's frustration at not being able to repair his own computer, was awarded top honors in a community category.

"IFixit works because we actually teach people how to repair things with easy step-by-step instructions and pictures," startup founder Kyle Wiens told AFP after claiming his award.

"There are a lot of issues with electronics dying and people not being able to deal with it," he continued. "We are empowering real consumers to fix things, and save money at the same time."

Wiens writes online repair manuals, with members of the online community contributing to the website's digital library.

"We see a tremendous amount of new manuals come in all the time with people teaching everything from how to fix old Volvos to blenders," Wiens said.

White House backs online 'privacy bill of rights'

WASHINGTON, March 16, 2011 (AFP) - The White House urged Congress on Wednesday to approve a "consumer privacy bill of rights" that would regulate the collection of personal data on the Internet.

Assistant Commerce Secretary Lawrence Strickling called for the legislation at a hearing on online privacy held by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

"The administration urges Congress to enact a 'consumer privacy bill of rights' to provide baseline consumer data privacy protections," he said.

Strickling said authority to enforce privacy protections should be given to the Federal Trade Commission, which is advocating a "Do Not Track" mechanism that would allow Web users to opt out of having their activities monitored.

"The large-scale collection, analysis, and storage of personal information is becoming more central to the Internet economy," said Strickling the White House's top communications policy advisor.

"These activities help to make the online economy more efficient and companies more responsive to their customer needs," he said.

"We think we can get to a regime that will greatly improve privacy for consumers and still meet the needs of businesses who want to continue to see the growth of the Internet," he said.

The Center for Democracy & Technology welcomed the Obama administration's call for online privacy legislation.

"This is a historic announcement, marking the first time the White House has called for a baseline consumer privacy bill," CDT president Leslie Harris said.


US high-pressure pumps go to ailing Japan reactor

WASHINGTON, March 16, 2011 (AFP) - The US military said Wednesday it had delivered high-pressure water pumps to Japan to help cool a stricken nuclear power plant as part of the US aid effort amid Japan's worst crisis since World War II.

"High-pressure water pumps were offloaded from USNS Safeguard in Yokosuka last night and delivered to Yokota Air Force Base for further transfer to the government of Japan for employment at the Fukushima power plant," the US Pacific Fleet said in a statement.

Four additional pumps were delivered from Sasebo, in Japan's southwest, it added.

Japan's devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake Friday was part one of an unprecedented triple disaster, including a killer tsunami that pulverized Japan's northeastern coast and damaged atomic reactors which have spewed radiation into the air and sparked fears of a nuclear meltdown.

Authorities have struggled to keep the reactors' fuel rods from overheating after the quake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems. Officials have pumped in seawater and were preparing to drop water on the stricken plant from military helicopters.

It was unclear exactly how serious a crisis it has become, because authorities were not sure how much damage, if any, there had been to the steel and concrete containment vessels around the reactors. But cooling down the reactor fuel rods is vital to containing the disaster, and the US high-pressure pumps would likely be used for such a purpose.

The US Navy's 7th Fleet said at least 14 US ships had arrived in or were steaming toward Japanese waters for a massive aid operation, including the fleet's flagship USS Blue Ridge, and several vessels that were part of an amphibious ready group and Marine expeditionary unit.

A total of 33 tons of supplies had been delivered by US forces as of Wednesday, including food and milk, bottled water, clothing, medical supplies and blankets, the fleet said.

Several of the US ships had entered the Sea of Japan, west of the country and away from the quake-tsunami zone.

"In the coming days they will take position off the coast of Sakata on the western coast of Honshu to begin conducting disaster response operations," the fleet said, noting that the west coast "affords greater access to undamaged ports and roads, fewer navigational hazards, and prevailing winds that are upwind of the Fukushima power plant."

A key mission of the amphibious ready group and Marine expeditionary unit will be assisting in the reopening of the airport at hard-hit Sendai city.