Fukushima activates underground ‘ice wall’

The Fukushima nuclear plant has activated an underground “wall of ice” built around the reactors, to help contain spills of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean.

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The system comprises underground pipes that will freeze the ground and create a physical barrier around the four units that were damaged by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, a spokesperson of the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, has confirmed on Thursday.

The installation of the system, the cost of which was estimated at $US307 million ($A399.95 million), has taken two years and while TEPCO presented the project in 2013, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, or NRA, had not approved it till now as it was analysing the safety of the project.

On Wednesday, the NRA greenlighted the first phase of the “wall of ice”, which flanks the Fukushima Daiichi plant, overlooking the sea on the west.

The second phase of the system will extend to the north and southern parts of the plant, covering approximately 95 per cent of its total perimeter, explained the spokesperson.

The operation of the first segment of the ice barrier will take about a month and a half and will ensure water from the underground aquifers does not get inside the buildings, housing the reactors, and mix with polluted refrigerant.

The goal is to reduce the amount of radioactive water that accumulates in the basements of the buildings and prevent its leakage into the Pacific Ocean.

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Once the ice barrier is operational, the amount of water that seeps daily into the nuclear plant will be reduced from approximately 200 tonnes to around 50 tonnes, according to TEPCO.

This amount could be reduced further if the third phase of the underground barrier is completed, sealing the eastern side of the plant, which the NRA is yet to authorise.

TEPCO “will carefully monitor” the levels of water on the subsurface throughout the process of activation of the wall to prevent new spills, added the spokesperson.

Watchdog takes private college to court

A private college will face action in the Federal Court over allegations it used misleading information and unconscionable conduct in signing up students for courses that saddled them with Commonwealth government debts.

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The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and the Commonwealth government have alleged Australian Institute of Professional Education Pty Ltd (AIPE) marketed courses to “some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in the Australian community”.

Among the claims from the regulator is that AIPE allegedly promised students a free laptop or tablet to sign up to courses costing up to $19,600, when the computers were in fact on loan.

The watchdog also alleges that AIPE breached consumer laws by making false or misleading representations and engaging in unconscionable conduct by marketing VET FEE-HELP loan scheme-funded courses.

The college used door-to-door sales, face-to-face marketing and telemarketing to sell courses in NSW, Queensland and Western Australia, the ACCC said.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims said the watchdog alleged AIPE marketed courses to vulnerable groups including consumers from low socio-economic backgrounds or with intellectual disabilities.

“Some people were enrolled who had limited reading and writing skills, could not use a computer and were not able to use email,” Mr Sims said.

“We allege that AIPE failed to take adequate steps to ensure that it was not taking advantage of these vulnerable consumers.”

The ACCC alleges AIPE enrolled 15,426 students between 2013 and 2015 for courses costing between $12,160 and $19,600, and that AIPE was paid $210.9 million by the Commonwealth for the enrolments.

The court action is seeking to have students’ debts wiped and repayment of course fees made to AIPE under the VET FEE-HELP loan scheme.

AIPE told AAP on Thursday it had not yet received formal notification of any court proceedings.

The college said it was a “leading provider of vocational education” and that it sought to comply with all obligations under Australian consumer law.

AIPE said it terminated working arrangements with all agents it used to sign up prospective students last year after an audit by the Australian Skills Quality Authority.

The federal court action follows a joint investigation by the ACCC and NSW Fair Trading into the conduct of private colleges.

Gas sector could take decade to recover

Western Australia’s subdued oil and gas sector may have to wait a decade for a recovery, a prominent academic says.

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Natural gas prices have fallen as new projects come online and the outlook is unlikely to improve as more US projects are commissioned over the next few years, University of Western Australia chair of economics Peter Hartley said.

“Our own modelling work, trying to forecast what might happen with natural gas, it’s not a great story for WA,” Mr Hartley told a business lunch.

“It indicates that probably not until the second half of the twenties will there be a substantial opportunity for Australian natural gas projects.”

Australia is facing a weak market for liquefied natural gas (LNG) after the completion of seven major local LNG projects in recent years, and a collapse in oil prices, Mr Hartley also warned.

He predicts oil prices will trade around $US33 a barrel by March 2017, down from the current price of $US38 a barrel.

Iron ore prices are also unlikely to recover over the next year, Mr Hartley said, predicting a price of around $US48 a tonne in March 2017, down from the current price of $US55.

A global oversupply of iron ore has weighed on prices as Chinese steel demand continues to soften.

Also speaking at Thursday’s event, BHP Billiton’s Vice President of Strategy, Development and Planning Tony Ottaviano defended the company’s high production levels in the face of the oversupply.

“When I hear the doomsayers say iron ore is yesterdays news, I sit back and I say $70 to $80 billion of investment needs maintenance, needs replacement, needs sustaining, needs new skills and when you see the sort of EBITDA margins we make I cannot understand why we wouldn’t operate these assets to their full potential,” he said.

School principals back Gonski funding

School principals say funding being received under the Gonski model is making a difference.

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The Turnbull government argues a new school funding agreement is needed post-2018 to replace Labor’s model of extra money for disadvantaged schools, which stemmed from a report by consultant David Gonski.

But the latest State of Our Schools survey found 95 per cent of schools that received over $200,000 in increased Gonski funding said it had made a positive difference.

Schools were spending the money on teacher training, student support staff, specialist literacy and numeracy teachers, individual support for students with learning difficulties and extra classroom teachers.

But 45 per cent of principals say their school is still either under-resourced or significantly under-resourced.

The figure was up to 65 per cent in Victoria, where Gonski funding was delayed until this year.

Australian Education Union federal president Correna Haythorpe, who commissioned the survey, said the Gonski model should continue.

“We need Malcolm Turnbull to match Labor’s commitment to funding Gonski in full and investing an extra $4.5 billion into our schools in 2018 and 2019, to allow schools to build on the success they are already starting to deliver,” she said.

School principals also reported that fundraising by parents was a mainstay of school budgets.

Sixty per cent reported fundraising was used for classroom equipment, 46 per cent for sports equipment or uniforms, 43 per cent for textbooks and 28 per cent for basic maintenance.

“These are things which should be provided to schools without the need for them to do their own fundraising,” Ms Haythorpe said.

MP stands by NQ state despite criticism

Federal MP George Christensen is standing by his push for a referendum on north Queensland becoming a separate state, despite the state’s treasurer rubbishing the idea.

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The federal member for Dawson is lobbying politicians north of the Tropic of Capricorn to support a vote by north Queenslanders only on the breakaway plan.

Treasurer Curtis Pitt, whose Mulgrave electorate starts south of Cairns, says revenue from mining and tourism, the north’s key industries, would be nowhere near enough for the region to fund essential services.

But Mr Christensen told AAP the state would have numerous revenue options including pushing for a share of GST revenue and taking advantage of the Turnbull Government’s plans to have states raise their own income tax.

“We have 60 per cent of the state’s export industries above the Tropic of Capricorn,” he told AAP on Thursday.

“That says a lot.”

Mr Christensen has been speaking to economist Colin Dwyer, who he says is “adamant” the move can be made.

But, the Townsville-based economist and longtime proponent of secession said more rigorous modelling was needed before north Queenslanders went to the polls.

He based his argument on the idea that the new state, which would have about 20 per cent of the Queensland population, would need the same portion of the current budget in revenue, supplemented by mining royalties and borrowings.

Mr Dwyer said the northern state would have to pay the south for some services, especially in its early days.

But he didn’t know which services the new government would be unable to provide.

“You wouldn’t be having the plebiscite immediately,” he said.

“We could get something up and running (detailed research) within 12 months, possibly even six months.”

Mr Pitt said the state would have difficulty funding the creation of a new government, while Mr Christensen said the cost wouldn’t change dramatically because the region already has politicians and bureaucratic infrastructure, like department offices, in place.

The idea of a separate northern state has long been floated by other disgruntled politicians concerned the region hasn’t received the attention it deserves.

Mr Christensen said a government aligned with the interests of the north would have approved mining in the Galilee Basin already.

“The Galilee Basin is part and parcel of why this push is probably gaining momentum,” he said.

“We have seen absolute stagnation on issues like this for years.”

Mr Dwyer previously ran for the LNP in the seat of Mundingburra but says he’s no longer a member of a political party.

He said he’s given advice to numerous politicians, including Rob Katter.

Sinodinos to stay attached to scandal

Senator Arthur Sinodinos’ name will remain in an NSW Electoral Commission statement relating to a Liberal Party donations scandal, with the head of the commission also expecting the identities of secret benefactors to be revealed soon.

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The NSW Electoral Commission is refusing to pay the Liberals more than $4.4 million until it reveals the secret donors who poured about $700,000 into the party’s coffers ahead of the 2011 state election.

Cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos was the party’s treasurer and finance director at the time and wanted references to himself in the commission’s statement removed, but its chair Keith Mason says it is “not prepared to retract its decision or any part of its statement”.

Mr Mason also expects the party to comply with the states electoral funding laws, following a public statement to that effect from NSW Liberal director Chris Stone.

“The commission expects the reportable political donations not yet disclosed in the party’s 2011 declaration will be disclosed promptly, which will allow a new decision about funding claims to be made,” Mr Mason said.

“This means the NSW Liberal Party needs to disclose all reportable political donations, including the names and other required information about donors under NSW election laws.”

Following the publication of the commission’s statement, Senator Sinodinos’ lawyers have sought a retraction of parts of its summary of facts, which the senator says used “loose language which could convey erroneous impressions”.

His lawyers said the commission’s conclusion that Senator Sinodinos knew, condoned or supported the disguising of donations was “manifestly wrong” and was formed without affording “procedural fairness” or “basic decency”.

In a response letter published on Thursday night, Mr Mason said the senator’s assertions about the language were wrong and “not in fact used in any of the documents published”.

The three-member electoral commission is due to meet again next Wednesday.

Katrina Dawson told she could leave Lindt cafe: siege inquest

Katrina Dawson was a few steps from freedom, having been told by Man Haron Monis that she could leave the Lindt Cafe just as the siege was beginning.

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The respected barrister then stopped to ask if her friend and colleague Stefan Balafoutis could also leave. Some 16 hours later, Ms Dawson was killed when hit by shrapnel from police bullets as they stormed the cafe.

Mr Balafoutis – one of the first of two hostages to escape – has recounted that Monis, shortly after pulling out his shotgun and announcing Australia was under attack by Islamic State, told Ms Dawson and hostage Julie Taylor they could both leave.

Balafoutis says Monis initially agreed to release him & fellow lawyers Katrina Dawson & Julie Taylor from #Lindtcafe @SBSNews #sydneysiege

— Alyshia Gates (@alyshiagates) March 31, 2016

Mr Balafoutis, a barrister, had been meeting at the cafe with Ms Dawson and Ms Taylor.

“I heard the person I now know to be Monis say something about a bomb,” he said on Thursday in testimony before the inquest into the December 2014 siege in Martin Place.

Along with the other hostages, Mr Balafoutis was then asked to place his identification on a table in front of him.

“A very short time after that I heard Monis say, ‘you two can go’ and it appeared that he was talking to Katrina and Julie,” he said.

“And Katrina responded and … I think she pointed at me and said ‘can he come with us’.

“And Monis said `yes, you can all go’ or perhaps he just said ‘yes’.”

He said the three friends then stood up and started walking towards the main doors of the cafe.

“I don’t at this point remember precisely what Monis said but I do remember that we all stopped in different places.”

83yrold hostage John O’Brien says he was terrified Monis would “blow us all away”.He was one of 1st hostages to escape @SBSNews #sydneysiege

— Alyshia Gates (@alyshiagates) March 31, 2016

Mr Balafoutis was one of the first to escape the cafe, running out the main doors at 3.45pm with John O’Brien.

Ms Dawson was killed when the siege reached its tragic conclusion, along with cafe manager Tori Johnson and Monis.

Mr Balafoutis also told the hearing that early exchanges between himself and Monis convinced him that he would be one of the first hostages targeted if the situation deteriorated further.

“One view I formed was I was very unlikely to be a hostage who was released by Monis,” he told the inquest.

“The second view I’d formed was that given that I had been referred to (in an aggressive way) I felt that in the event that Monis was to shoot somebody because he was panicked with the police there was a high chance it would be me.”

“In the event that Monis was to shoot somebody because he was panicked by the police there was a high chance it would be me.”: Balafoutis

— Alyshia Gates (@alyshiagates) March 31, 2016Siege hostage breaks down

Lindt Cafe hostage Fiona Ma has broken down during an inquest into the Sydney siege after being asked to relive her final terrifying moments inside the cafe.

The former cafe employee was with gunman Man Haron Monis and fellow hostage Selina Win Pe in another part of the Martin Place building when six hostages, led by Jarrod Morton-Hoffman, seized on the opportunity to make a run for it.

As Ms Ma stacked boxes against a door under orders from Monis, she heard the sound of glass shattering and recalled thinking the others were making their escape.

“He was periodically normal & periodically aggressive…he was increasingly paranoid”: hostage Fiona Ma on Monis’s behaviour @SBSNews

— Alyshia Gates (@alyshiagates) March 30, 2016

Then, as the gunman chased after six fleeing hostages, Ms Ma hid in the cafe office before deciding it was time to make her escape.

She could not see Monis, or any of the other hostages.

“He fired the gun and then he was reloading,” said Ms Ma, who is the second hostage to give evidence at the inquest into the December 2014 siege.

“I thought if he’s reloading, I can run out now.”

Asked by counsel assisting the coroner, Jeremy Gormly SC, whether it was possible she feared that she and Ms Win Pe would be left alone in the cafe with Monis, Ms Ma responded: “Yes.”

“And you didn’t want that to be the case?” Mr Gormly asked.

“No,” Ms Ma replied, as she wept on the stand before the inquest was adjourned for about 20 minutes.

Hostages John O’Brien and Stefan Balafoutis also are expected to be called to give evidence on Thursday.

Fiona Ma says Monis touched her with his gun, as he twice used her as a human shield to move around the #Lindtcafe @SBSNews #sydneysiege

— Alyshia Gates (@alyshiagates) March 30, 2016

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Turnbull ups stakes in tax plan

Malcolm Turnbull is turning the political playbook upside down.

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But it’s risky for his coalition government which faces an election as early as July 2.

Previous prime ministers have ducked and weaved when it comes to overhauling the way in which the state and federal governments interact.

The last leader to enter these choppy waters was Tony Abbott, who initiated a “white paper” process but didn’t keep the leadership long enough to see it through.

Now Turnbull has issued a challenge to the states – if you want to run schools and hospitals you will have to take responsibility for funding them.

The proposal involves the federal government cutting all marginal tax rates by two percentage points.

The states would have to levy a two percentage point income tax as a surcharge but would directly receive all that revenue – about $14 billion a year.

To keep the federal budget in check, the Commonwealth would take back $14 billion in health and school funding grants.

That means no net increase in funding from the Commonwealth.

But the states would constantly have to weigh up whether to increase their levy as demand grows for services or make their services more efficient – which would be politically dicey for the premiers.

It’s the financial equivalent of a squirrel grip.

Turnbull says it’s time for the premiers to stop seeing the federal government as an ATM and take a “grown-up” approach.

“What are we in politics for? To take responsibility, to seize the opportunities, to be accountable for the money we spend and if we need more money to go to (voters) and say we need to raise taxes or we need to cut expenditure somewhere else.

“Having more autonomy would make state governments and territory governments better governments.”

If it fails, Turnbull is left with few – if any – options for tax reform having ditched changes to the GST and negative gearing.

The premiers appeared taken by surprise when the prime minister made his announcement at a Sydney rugby league grounds on Wednesday.

Labor leader Bill Shorten called it a “thought bubble”.

However, Turnbull insists it had been raised privately between the premiers, senior government officials and Treasurer Scott Morrison for a “considerable time”.

But he had decided to go public with the offer because the confidential discussions ahead of Friday’s Council of Australian Governments meeting in Canberra had been leaked to the media.

Labor was quick to query the prime minister’s explanation, pointing to a media conference on Wednesday at which the treasurer appeared to be out of the loop on the policy.

Morrison described the tax plan as “feverish speculation” and urged reporters not to get ahead of themselves.

The “who knew what when” argument feeds into the ongoing saga about whether the relationship between the treasurer and prime minister has broken down and economic policy is being run out of Turnbull’s office.

But what is more important is how Turnbull is seeking to head off Labor’s attack on him being a “do nothing” leader who has jettisoned many of his core beliefs in a bid to stay in power.

In doing so, he is making himself a bigger target for the opposition.

Shorten, whose Labor team is already closing the gap on the coalition in the polls, has a simple attack line on the tax plan.

“Australians pay more and get less,” he says.

The government is also giving the impression that rather than go down the popular track set out in the landmark Gonski report, it has run up the white flag on provide more federal support for state schools.

Even the NSW Liberal government – perhaps Turnbull’s strongest supporter in the ranks of the states – is concerned about this.

NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli describes the federal government’s position on funding as a “breach of faith with all school students in the state”.

Federal Labor has pledged to implement the Gonski recommendations “on time and in full”.

It’s a bold move by Turnbull.

Whether voters buy it is another question.

‘He’s very lucky’: Kiama surfer attacked by shark saved by friend

The surfer who lost a chunk of his leg in a shark attack on the NSW south coast was saved by a mate who went out into the water and paddled him back to shore.

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Brett Connellan, 22, was surfing 100 metres off Kiama’s Bombo Beach when he was attacked by a shark which ripped into his left thigh and gored his hand at dusk on Wednesday.

Hearing his screams, Joel Trist swam to his mate’s aid and ferried him back to shore on his board.

Off-duty nurses used a leg rope as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding before the local surfer was airlifted to St George Hospital, where he remains in a serious but stable condition having lost a large part of his thigh.

Locals have hailed the efforts of Mr Trist and the quick-thinking of others who helped on the beach.

“He could’ve bled to death before we arrived on scene,” Ambulance NSW district officer Inspector Terry Morrow told the Illawarra Mercury.

“He was very lucky the members of the public were there and acted as they did. They saved his life, to tell you the truth.”

Sydney doctor Nathan Trist praised his brother on Twitter.

“So proud of my brother for paddling 50m, getting Brett to shore and putting leg rope tourniquet on,” he wrote.

So proud of my brother for paddling 50m, getting Brett to shore and putting leg rope tourniquet on #shark #bombo pic.twitter苏州美甲培训学校按摩论坛,/2jkAYfKPa9

— Nathan Trist (@nathantrist) March 30, 2016

Mr Connellan is a well known surfing figure in the south coast beach community and is the store manager of a local surfboard shop.

The shop’s owner Dylan Perese expressed his grief over his friend’s accident on social media.

“I still can’t comprehend it. Sharks are always in the back of every surfers mind but we never think it’s going to happen to someone we know, let alone your store manager and right hand man,” he said.

Last year Mr Connellan praised Australian surfing star Mick Fanning on Facebook for fighting off a shark attack during competition, hailing Fanning’s colleague Julian Wilson as a hero for paddling in to help.

“It’s crazy what people are prepared to do for their mates, they’re both absolute heroes in my eyes,” he wrote.

Bombo Beach and neighbouring beaches are closed on Thursday with lifeguards undertaking jetski patrols of the water in search of the shark.

Experts says the shark that attacked Mr Connellan was likely a great white or bronze whaler.

Joel Trist said he was about 50m down the beach from his friend when he realised his friend was in trouble.

“The first thing I saw was Brett getting thrashed around in the water and a terrible scream,” he told reporters on Thursday.

“Acting on instinct, I just paddled as hard as I could towards him and even lost sight of him at one stage.”

Mr Trist then pulled his friend onto his board before heading to shore.

“I just said to him, `what’s it like?’ and he said `it’s not good’ and at that point I knew something was horribly wrong.”

New government arrives in Tripoli, and gunshots follow

There have been reports of gunfire in the Libyan capital shortly after the arrival of a unity government council backed by the United Nations.

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Seven members of the government of National Accord have defied warnings from rival factions by travelling to Tripoli by ship.

The Presidential Council was formed late last year under a peace deal mediated by the United Nations.

The move was an effort to end Libya’s chaotic political climate that has followed the uprising that toppled leader Muammar Gaddafi five years ago.

The council is supposed to replace the two rival administrations, one in the Libyan capital of Tripoli and the other in the eastern city of Tobruk.

But the administration in Tripoli had warned the council not to travel anywhere near the capital, and it did anyway.

Seven members of the council arrived in Tripoli by sea, with its designate prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, announcing he had set up a temporary seat of power at a naval base.

(Translated) “The unity government announces its safe arrival in the capital Tripoli. We were eager that there was no bloodshed in this process, and we’re committed to the terms of the political agreement that the Libyans agreed on and will expand the participants in it. We’ll begin this task in Tripoli by starting a new phase of dialogue and internal communications with our honourable people of all ideological tendencies.”

But the foreign minister of the rival government in the capital has called Mr Sarraj’s presence unacceptable.

And hours after the council’s arrival, heavy firing was heard over the city.

Shops and restaurants closed their doors, and cars lined up outside petrol stations.

Opposing militias have since set up checkpoints in downtown Tripoli.

The United Nations has welcomed the council’s arrival and is urging all public bodies to help facilitate a peaceful handover of power.

France’s foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, says the council will play a key role in helping stop the expansion of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as Daesh or ISIS.

It has taken advantage of Libya’s security vacuum to seize the central city of Sirte.

(Translated)”There is no other solution but a political one. Let’s be honest, we must learn our lesson from 2011. We must not do it again, initiatives that don’t bring any sustainable solutions and create a state of chaos and disorder. It’s detrimental to the Libyan people, but it also allows the expansion of terrorist groups like Daesh and threatens all the countries in the region.”

British-based Middle East analyst Professor George Joffe has told Al Jazeera television the council’s set-up is a step towards finding a solution in Libya.

“The most likely scenario is, in the very near future, the new government will call upon European states and the United States to help it control the growth of ISIS inside Libya, and, also, the Italians, in particular, want to come in to control the movement of migrants. The migrant season is now just beginning.”

But Libya’s army, currently based around the city of Benghazi, is opposed to the new government because it is calling for the army’s main general to step down.

Also, under the deal brokered by the United Nations, the unity government must secure a vote of approval from the Libyan parliament.

Previous attempts have failed, and the reception in Tripoli is suggesting it, again, will not happen easily.