Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Japan earthquake: Britons told to consider Tokyo exit

The Foreign Office has advised Britons to consider leaving Tokyo and north-east Japan following Friday's quake, tsunami and subsequent radiation fears.

British officials report there is still "no real human health issue that people should be concerned about".

The disaster sparked a nuclear emergency at a stricken power plant, 220km (140 miles) north of Tokyo.

The Foreign Office says its advice is based on the situation at Fukushima plant, and food and fuel shortages.

Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne said the advice was "not an order" but that given the situation "British nationals should consider leaving Tokyo and northern Japan".

He said they should be able to leave on a plane, or at least travel to other parts of the country by train or bus, but "if the capacity needs to be increased by the British government, we will do that".

"We are informed by the science, and the science says that outside the 30km exclusion zone there should not be a threat to human health," he added.

"If we thought there was a threat to human health of a severe level in Tokyo, we would have much stronger advice at this stage, saying that people should leave with immediate effect."

The Foreign Office statement said: "Due to the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility and potential disruptions to the supply of goods, transport, communications, power and other infrastructure, British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area."

The travel advice has changed from "advising against all non-essential travel to Tokyo and north-eastern Japan".

A meeting of the UK government emergency response committee, Cobra was held on Wednesday evening to discuss the situation in Japan.

Elsewhere, France is urging its nationals in Tokyo to leave the country or move south as two Air France planes are sent there to begin evacuating people.

The US is warning its citizens living within 50 miles (80 km) of the plant to evacuate or seek shelter, and is barring US troops from the area.

Australia is advising its people to consider leaving Tokyo and the most damaged prefectures, while Turkey is warning against travel to Japan.

The 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami struck on Friday, killing thousands and leaving more than 500,000 people homeless amid freezing temperatures and aftershocks.

UK nationals are being asked to confirm their safety by contacting the Foreign Office (FCO) on +44 (0)20 7008 0000. That is also the helpline number for people concerned about friends and relatives in Japan, and the FCO said 5,480 people had called it as of Tuesday night.

A bus has been organised to take Britons from Sendai to Tokyo on Thursday. It will leave from the consular response centre at the ANA Holiday Inn at midday local time (0300 GMT).

Passengers wanting to register should call the British embassy in Tokyo on (+81) 80 3250 2924 or (+81) 35 211 1356 if calling from the UK, or 080 3250 2924 or 035 211 1356 if calling within Japan.

Most of the 17,000 Britons living in Japan are understood to be in Tokyo or Osaka.

David Warren, British ambassador to Japan, told BBC Radio 5 live he was not going to speculate about exact numbers of British casualties because the figures were constantly changing.

He said the embassy had a list of Britons believed to have been in the quake-hit areas and embassy staff had been able to eliminate an "enormous" number of people by phone or e-mail.

"There are still people we have been unable to locate," he added.

"Although we don't have any confirmation of British casualties, the size of this disaster must mean there is a probability there will have been some."

Earlier, it was claimed UK rescue workers had to leave Japan because they did not have the necessary paperwork from the British embassy in Tokyo, a claim denied by the Foreign Office.

The International Rescue Corps said they were not given permission to work in the country because it would have made the embassy legally responsible for them.

'World's largest paedophile ring' uncovered

International police led by a UK team say they shut down the largest internet paedophile ring yet discovered.

The global forum had 70,000 followers at its height, leading to 4,000 intelligence reports being sent to police across 30 countries.

The operation has so far identified 670 suspects and 230 abused children.

Detectives say 184 people have been arrested - 121 of them were in the UK. Some 60 children have been protected in the UK.

The three-year investigation, Operation Rescue, was led by investigators from the UK's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop).

Speaking at a news conference at The Hague in the Netherlands, investigators said the network hid behind a legal online forum which operated out of the country - but its members came from around the world.

Along with the Netherlands and the UK, suspects have been identified in Australia, Italy, Canada, New Zealand and Thailand.

The members of the network went into a private channel,, and then used its secret systems to share films and images of abused children, said Rob Wainwright, director of European police agency Europol.

However, child abuse investigators, including a team from Ceop, had already infiltrated the network and were posing as paedophiles to gather intelligence.

In the UK, the 240 suspects include police officers, teachers and a karate teacher. One of the suspects in the UK is a woman.

The latest arrest was in Northamptonshire.

To date, 33 have been convicted, including John McMurdo, a scout leader from Plymouth. Another forum user was Stephen Palmer, 54, of Birkenhead, who shared abuse images with contacts in the US. A third man, 46-year-old Colin Hoey Brown of Bromsgrove, was jailed for making and distributing almost 1,000 images.
'New ground broken'

Peter Davies, head of Ceop, said: "The scale and success of Operation Rescue has broken new ground.

"Not only is it one of the largest operations of its kind to date - and the biggest operation we have led - it also demonstrates the impact of international law enforcement agencies working together with one single objective, to safeguard children and bring offenders to justice.

"While these offenders felt anonymous in some way because they were using the internet to communicate, the technology was actually being used against them.

"Everything they did online, everyone they talked to or anything they shared could and was tracked by following the digital footprint."

Operation Rescue began when Ceop and colleagues in the Australian Federal Police separately identified the site as a key online meeting place for abusers.

The two forces deployed officers to infiltrate the site and to identify the members who were posing the most risk to children.

One of the early breakthroughs in the investigation was the arrest of four suspects in Thailand in 2008. Two of the men were British.

In March of the same year, Ceop identified the owner of the site and the location of its server in the Netherlands. The owner of the server is now co-operating with Dutch police.

Rob Wainwright of Europol said the man running the server had used "advanced security techniques" which took months to break down.

"If you think you can use the internet to abuse children you are wrong," he said.

"We will not allow these offenders to carry on committing these awful crimes against young children. We will not rest until we have identified every offender that has been active in this network and others that might be operating on the internet."

US alarm over Japan atomic crisis

Increasing alarm has been voiced in the US about the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan.

A top US nuclear official said attempts to cool reactors with sea water to prevent a meltdown appeared to be failing and workers could be exposed to "potentially lethal" radiation doses.

Japanese army helicopters on Thursday dumped water on the reactors to try to cool overheated fuel rods.

The plant was severely damaged by last week's huge earthquake and tsunami.

US Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said that the situation at the plant appears to be more serious than the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979.

The US state department has urged Americans living within 80km (50 miles) of Fukushima Daiichi, which lies 220km from Tokyo, to leave the area - a much wider exclusion zone than the 20km advised by the Japanese government.

Some US military personnel in Japan have been given tablets against possible radiation effects.

Britain has now advised its nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of the capital to consider leaving the area.

Engineers are racing to avert a nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima Daiichi, where the tsunami wrecked back-up diesel generators that kept the nuclear fuel cool.

Workers have been dousing the reactors with sea water in a frantic effort to stabilise their temperatures, since the first in a series of explosions rocked the plant on Saturday.
'Unprecedented' crisis

On Thursday, army helicopters dumped tonnes of water on reactor three - a day after they were forced to pull out amid concerns over radiation levels in the air above the site.

There are fears that reactor three may have released radioactive steam due to a reported damage to its containment vessel.

The helicopters soon left the site in order to minimise the crews' exposure to radiation.

Meanwhile, water trucks are now on standby to spray water on to a spent-fuel storage pond at reactor four, following fires there.

Fukushima has sent low levels of radiation wafting into Tokyo.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. has said it is seeking to restore the power supply to the plant's cooling systems "as soon as possible".

On Wednesday, Greg Jaczko, chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), told a congressional energy and commerce subcommittee hearing in Washington that there appeared to be serious problems with attempts to cool the reactors.

"We believe that around the reactor site there are high levels of radiation," he said.

"It would be very difficult for emergency workers to get near the reactors. The doses they could experience would potentially be lethal doses in a very short period of time."

The US NRC has 11 agency experts in Tokyo monitoring the situation.

The head of the UN's atomic energy agency, Yukio Amano, is travelling to Japan in person to gather more information.

Earlier, in a rare public appearance, Japan's Emperor Akihito said he was "deeply worried" about the crisis his country was facing.

TV stations interrupted programming to show the emperor describing the crisis facing the nation as "unprecedented in scale".

The 77-year-old - deeply respected by many Japanese - said: "I hope from the bottom of my heart that the people will, hand in hand, treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times."

Fukushima prefecture governor Yuhei Sato has criticised official handling of the evacuation of the area around the stricken power plant. "Anxiety and anger felt by people have reached boiling point," he said.

Mr Sato said centres already housing people who had been moved from their homes near the plant did not have enough hot meals and basic necessities such as fuel and medical supplies. "We're lacking everything," he said.

In other developments:

    * The benchmark Nikkei index fell 3.6% in early Thursday trading in Tokyo, shortly after the yen briefly hit the highest level against the US dollar since World War II
    * France urged its nationals in Tokyo to leave the country or move south; two Air France planes were sent to begin evacuation
    * Australia advised its citizens to consider leaving Tokyo and the most damaged prefectures
    * Turkey warned against travel to Japan

Thousands of people were killed in the 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami.

Snow has blanketed swathes of the disaster zone, where many survivors have little food, water or heat.

About 450,000 people have been staying in temporary shelters, many sleeping on the floor of school gymnasiums.

More than 4,300 people are listed as dead but it is feared the total death toll from the catastrophe, which pulverised the country's north-east coast, will rise substantially.

London mayor criticised over release of transport figures

Boris Johnson has been criticised for releasing figures showing a drop in crime on London's public transport, ahead of their official publication.

The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) said City Hall's decision to send out the press release was "poor practice".

It was based on quarterly figures from Transport for London (TfL) but was put out "some time ahead" of its official publication, the UKSA said.

The mayor said the data was accurate and used to reassure the public.

The UKSA's chairman Sir Michael Scholar said Mr Johnson did not break the law as TfL figures were not classified as official statistics - something he said he would ask the Cabinet Office to change.
'Code of Practice'

In a letter to the mayor he said: "Whatever their answer, I believe that selective prior release, as in your press release of February 21, was poor practice, and was damaging to public trust in the statistics produced by Transport for London.

"In the interests of restoring public trust in Government statistics, may I invite you to undertake in future to comply with the Code, as a matter of principle?".

The UKSA's Code of Practice says statistical reports should be published "separately from any other statement or comment about the figures", that "no statement or comment - based on prior knowledge - is issued to the press or published ahead of the publication of the statistics".

It also states that "no indication of the substance of a statistical report is made public or given to the media" prior to publication.

'Seek to reassure'

A spokesperson for the mayor said: "Londoners will understandably want to know how safe their transport system is and the mayor will always seek to reassure them."

He said the accuracy of the figures had not been questioned and the use of the statistics was not subject to the regime suggested by Sir Michael.

However, he added, they would happy to look at the suggestions made.

The letter from Sir Michael came in response to a complaint about the press release by Full Fact, a group which says it campaigns for accuracy in public debate.