Patt Morrison for March 14, 2011

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The world is nervously watching the fate of at least five nuclear power plants in Japan that are all in danger of melting down, and closer to home we’re worrying about our preparations for a mega-quake in California, but it’s crucial to remember that there is a desperate humanitarian crisis underway in northern Japan. A tide of bodies washed up along the Japanese coastline today, with death tolls expected to rise into the tens of thousands; millions of people faced a fourth night without food, water or heating in near-freezing temperatures; the stock market plunged over the likelihood of huge losses by Japanese industries; and relief agencies are having a difficult time getting aid into the devastated areas along the northern Japanese coast line. Japan is Asia’s richest country but the wealth and resources can not keep up with the size and scope of the disaster—how will the needy get help and can Japan recover from this devastation?
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State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley resigned over the weekend after opining at an MIT student forum, that the Defense Department’s treatment of 23 year-old Private Bradley Manning was “ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid.” Manning, a former intelligence analyst in Iraq, has been charged with 34 counts for leaking classified military material to the activist web site Wikileaks. According to Manning’s lawyers, for the past nine months, he’s been kept in conditions close to solitary confinement and has been forced to sleep and stand at attention while naked—a precaution, authorities claim, for suicide watch. Asked about Manning’s treatment at a news conference on Friday, President Obama said, "I have actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assure me that they are." The United Nations announced in December it was launching an inquiry into Manning’s treatment and no trial date has been set. Is the alleged treatment of Manning appropriate and necessary as a national security measure?
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The comparisons are stark in a survey conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation: only one in four African Americans and one in six Hispanics reported owning stocks, bonds or mutual funds; half of whites say they invested in those financial products. Just 46 percent of blacks and 32 percent of Hispanics said they had an individual retirement account or any similar retirement arrangement; two in three whites said they had IRA’s 401(k)s or similar holdings. It doesn’t get any better for these two minority populations when you compare home ownership: blacks and Hispanics are not only far less likely to own homes than whites, but when they do own homes they tend to have less equity in them. This has been a trend of the past several decades, exacerbated by the recent recession that seemed to discourage minorities from investing in the stock market. What can be done to encourage financial education and participation among minority Americans that need the help to gain ground?
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State deficits not the fault of your pension plan?

While thousands protest the Republican-led Wisconsin senate’s vote to limit collective bargaining for public workers, an action said to be necessary in order to rein in spiraling pension costs to the state budget, other states around the country are targeting similar employee contracts with an eye to reducing retirement benefits. But are these pension plans really the cause of high budget deficits? Many experts say no; in fact, they say that not only are these obligations not the burden on public finances that critics claim, but most plans are sufficiently funded and are becoming stronger as the economy and stock market recover.
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As the world’s attention turns toward Japan it’s natural to forget that several revolutions, civil wars, and incidents of civil unrest continue to persist across the Middle East. In Libya the uprising against dictator Moammar Gadhafi, which started with peaceful demonstrations and quickly turned into a civil war, looks to be in full retreat as forces loyal to Gadhafi beat back the rebels. What looked to be the end of days for Gadhafi’s long and ruinous rule in Libya might have been just wishful thinking. In Bahrain, where a Sunni royal family has been holding onto power in the face of large protests by the Shiite majority, tanks and soldiers from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries rolled into the capital today—the purpose of the foreign troops in Bahrain remains unclear, but again this might mean the end of the uprising. And in Egypt, where people were celebrating the ouster of Hosni Mubarak three weeks ago, the future remains very uncertain as elements of the old regime hang onto power. We take a quick tour through a very unsettled Middle East.
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What about California’s nuclear power plants?

Diablo Canyon Power Plant, located in San Luis Obispo County right along the Pacific Coast, contains two nuclear reactors and is built to withstand a 7.5 magnitude earthquake. San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, located in San Diego County right along the Pacific coast, contains two reactors and was built to withstand a 7.0 quake. As the world watches the terrible aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, and specifically the possible meltdowns of several nuclear reactors that were directly in the path of the tsunami wave, it’s natural to ask about the safety systems in place for California’s nuclear facilities. Both of California’s nuclear plants are getting up there in age and in both locations new fault lines have been discovered since the plants were originally constructed. What are the safety procedures in place at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre and is there any amount of engineering that can plan for the multitude of disaster scenarios that could cripple a nuclear reactor? What will the Japanese earthquake mean for the future of nuclear reactor construction across this country?
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