JAPANESE GOVERNMENT’'S HANDLING OF THE TSUNAMI AND FUKUSHIMA CRISIS

CRITICISM OF THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT’SHANDLING OF THE FUKUSHIMA NUCLEAR CRISIS AND THE AFTERMATH OF THE EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI

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Kan checking out tsunami damage
Ken Belson and Andrew Pollack wrote in the New York Times, “Detractors, including political opponents and industry experts here and abroad, have said that nuclear regulators and the power company did not act fast enough to prevent the explosions that damaged the reactor buildings, and that efforts to cool the reactors and spent fuel pools with helicopters and water cannons were ineffective. The government has also been assailed for its evacuation measures, which foreign governments said were insufficient, and its monitoring of radioactive materials in the food supply and ocean, which critics said has been inadequate. [Source: Ken Belson and Andrew Pollack, New York Times, April 10, 2011]

Ian Buruma wrote: “Few people had any understanding of who was responsible for what. Sometimes it looked very much as if the Japanese government itself was kept in the dark by officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Company ( TEPCO), owners of the nuclear power plants that are leaking radiation into land, sea, and sky. Prime Minister Naoto Kan had to ask TEPCO executives at one point, “What the hell is going on?” If Kan didn't know, how could anyone else? Indeed, Japan's powerful bureaucrats, normally assumed to know what they are doing, appeared to be as helpless as elected politicians.” [Source: Ian Buruma, Project Syndicate, April 2011]

Calls for Prime Minister Naoto Kan to step down grew louder over his alleged remark that evacuees from around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant "will not be able to return for 10 to 20 years." Kenichi Matsumoto, an advisor to the Kan administration, said the prime minister made the remark during talks the two had that day. Kan has strongly denied Matsumoto's claim. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 16, 2011]

In late April 2011, Kan’s handpicked advisor for the crisis at Fukushima nuclear power plant---Toshiso Kosako, a radiation specialist at Tokyo University---was resigned over the “impromptu” handling of the crisis. “The government has belittled laws and taken measures only foe the present moment, resulting in delays in bringing the situation under control,” he said.

A cable dated on March 18, 2008, released on Wikileaks, showed that then U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer made a prophetic warning to Washington about Japan's disaster preparedness, citing "compartmentalization and risk aversion within the bureaucracy."

Kan and the Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster

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Kan checking out tsunami damage
The government of Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan was generally given poor marks by the Japanese public for its handling of the earthquake and tsunami crisis. In an April Yomiuri Shimbun poll, 70 percent of those who responded said that Kan was unable to exercise leadership during the crisis. Many respondents said they were unhappy about the government response to the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis and the failure of the government to release important information about the crisis. Support for the Kan cabinet was 31 percent, a seven percent increase from before the quake.

Hannah Beech wrote in Time magazine, “At a time when the country is craving leadership, Kan has not provided it. He labeled the March 11 disaster Japan's worst crisis since World War II---then abruptly receded from public view. As the recovery phase has gathered steam, he has largely left day-to-day management of the quake's aftermath to a snail-paced bureaucracy. One of his only public moves has been to call for a national-unity government, but the LDP---with grim predictability---snubbed his offer. Given the uninspired state of Japan's politics, it's no surprise that one-third of young Japanese are what are called election virgins---people who have never bothered to vote.” [Hannah Beech, Time, April 4, 2011]

Confusion and the Early Government Response to the Fukushima Crisis

Seventy-six pages of summaries of meetings held after the outbreak of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant expose the ineptitude of the government in dealing with the disaster. The summaries themselves are inadequate because of the poor records kept at important meetings. "We should've been prepared for an emergency by [setting up a system] to tape-record meetings that take place in confusing situations, so the recordings could be used to produce ex post facto minutes," former cabinet chief Yukio Edano told reporters when the summaries were released. The 76 pages of summaries were compiled based on notes left by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and other involved parties. [Source: Toshiaki Sato and Koichi Yasuda , Yomiuri Shimbun, March 12, 2012]

Toshiaki Sato and Koichi Yasuda wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: The first meeting of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters, which is headed by the prime minister, began after 7 p.m. on March 11, the day when the government declared a state of emergency at the Fukushima plant. Although the government was supposed to take the lead in swiftly resolving the crisis, the summaries suggest it was completely confused and decided on a mishmash of policies with little transparency.

Symbolic of this confusion was the government's assessment of the meltdown. Members of the headquarters were briefed that the plant had activated emergency cooling systems, run mainly on batteries, after losing its power, the summaries said. "After [the batteries go dead in about] eight hours, the reactors probably will undergo a meltdown," an unknown speaker was quoted as saying in the summaries.

According to an analysis by Tokyo Electric Power Co. in May, a meltdown is believed to have started at the No. 1 reactor on the night of March 11.However, members of the headquarters apparently were not aware of the imminent danger. "No radioactive materials have been detected to have leaked from the plant. There is no need to take special action," another unknown speaker was quoted as saying in the summaries.In line with this statement, the government issued an evacuation order only to people within a three-kilometer radius of the plant.

Later, the government received a report from TEPCO saying it would release steam from the plant's reactor into the atmosphere to reduce pressure inside. As a result, the government expanded the evacuation area to 10 kilometers early in the morning of March 12. But opinion was divided in the Cabinet on the size of the evacuation zone.In the third meeting of the headquarters, which started early in the afternoon of March 12, Koichiro Gemba, then state minister in charge of national policy, called on the headquarters to reconsider the evacuation zone. "There is the possibility of a meltdown. Shouldn't we review the 10-kilometer-radius zone [and expand it further]?" Gemba was quoted as saying. Three hours after this meeting, a hydrogen explosion ripped the No. 1 reactor building apart, an incident no one in the government had anticipated. As a result, the evacuation area was expanded to 20 kilometers in the evening.

The summaries also show confusion in the government's chain of command was compounded when hydrogen explosions occurred at the plant's Nos. 3 and 4 reactor buildings. At the eighth meeting held in the early afternoon of March 15, then Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshihiro Katayama made a complaint. "Who is leading this operation? We've received numerous requests, but many of them seem pointless," he was quoted as saying. "They are piecemeal and childish. There is a lack of command [in the government]." Katayama apparently was critical that the integrated command had been split up, so operations were being carried out on the basement floor of the Prime Minister Office's crisis management center and on the fifth floor, where Prime Minister Naoto Kan was working. However, Kan put all the blame on TEPCO, according to the summaries. "Ninety percent of the raw data comes from TEPCO," Kan said, “but communication is insufficient."

At the 10th meeting on March 17, Cabinet members expressed frustration over the situation as comprehensive policies still had not been worked out, even though six days had passed since the disaster. "We should order local residents [around the nuclear power plant] to evacuate based on the worst-case scenario," Gemba was quoted as saying. "I've already devised an evacuation plan." It is not known if that plan was approved.

Kan Blows Up at TEPCO Headquarters

Video footage from March 15 shows Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who came from the Prime Minister's Office to TEPCO headquarters, being left by himself in a small room while TEPCO executives were busily gathering information. At about 5:30 a.m. on March 15, 2011, according to a TECO teleconference video, Prime Minister Naoto Kan walked into the head office of Tokyo Electric Power Co. in Tokyo's Uchisaiwaicho district. Eyeing TEPCO executives and employees, Kan launched into an about 14-minute speech voicing his discontent with the utility's handling of the nuclear accident. Although video images released by TEPCO do not contain audio, Kan is shown waving his arms while looking at TEPCO executives. Kan looked furious. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 16, 2012]

The video footage was taken from behind Kan. As a result, his facial expressions are not visible. TEPCO officials said that first, Kan said, "I think you understand what is happening at the Fukushima nuclear plant and what the situation means." Kan then instructed that a joint headquarters be established between the government and TEPCO to handle the accident, saying: "The head of the headquarters is me, Kan. The deputy heads are Minister Kaieda and [ TEPCO] President [Takamasa] Shimizu...The damage is extremely severe. If things remain unchanged, Japan as a nation will be ruined...Withdrawal [from the Fukushima plant] is unthinkable...Bet your lives on this work...Even if you try to run away, you won't be able to in the end.”

Kan also complained that reports about a hydrogen explosion at the No. 1 reactor building was delayed after it was reported on TV. Kan said: "I went to the site and exchanged information with Fukushima plant head [Masao Yoshida]. Reports are slow, incorrect and wrong...Don't think only about what's happening now, but take immediate action to anticipate what will happen next... TEPCO must create systems that can cope with this situation...It's no problem if executives who are around 60 go to the accident site and die. I'll go too...[ TEPCO] president and chairman, you must also be determined...If workers [at the plant] leave, it is 100 percent guaranteed that TEPCO will collapse...Why are there so many people? Important decisions should be made by five or six people! Stop kidding around! Prepare a small room!" Kan shouted at TEPCO executives. [Ibid]

The video was also shown inside the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which was connected to TEPCO headquarters via a teleconference system. The final report of TEPCO's in-house investigation committee said TEPCO employees at the site at the time had said they were angered, embarrassed, demoralized and experienced an extreme sinking feeling. [Ibid]

Public Displeasure Over the Japanese Government’s Handling of the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis and the Aftermath of the Earthquake and Tsunami

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Kan addressing the nation on the tsunami
Ian Buruma wrote: “The Japanese themselves have been as critical as any foreigner, if not more so, of their politicians' apparent haplessness, and of TEPCO officials' evasions and obfuscations. Some people are even leaving the relative safety of Tokyo, having lost trust in the government and TEPCO....The breakdown of public trust in Japanese officialdom would be worrying were it to lead to a democratic breakdown. But it might also lead to necessary changes. Even though systems of government may have certain traditional components, Japan's problems are systemic, not cultural.[Source: Ian Buruma, Project Syndicate, April 2011]

In an April 2011 Yomiuri Shimbun survey 61 percent of the people asked said the government’s handling of the crisis at Fukushima nuclear power plant was unsatisfactory. In the survey 60 percent of the respondents said taxes should be raised to finance recovery programs. In a Yomiuri Shimbun survey in May 59 percent of respondent said they were unhappy with the government’s efforts since disaster,

In early April more than 10,000 people showed up for two antinuclear protests in Tokyo. “I didn’t know much about nuclear plants, but since the disaster and the accident, I thought I should know more than I do,” Yuka Ito, 33, who attended a rally in Shiba Park, told the New York Times. She made her own masks and shirts with the slogan “No nukes.”

Defense of the Japanese Government’s Handling of the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis and the Aftermath of the Earthquake and Tsunami

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Kan at Fukushima
Don Lee and Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times,” Naoto Kan... and his government have faced sharp criticism from the public for the slow response to aid victims and their handling of the still-unresolved nuclear power station crisis in Fukushima. But many Japanese also see a more lively, if inexperienced, party at the helm that is trying to do things differently. In appointing a reconstruction committee, Kan purposefully excluded politicians, including members of Japan's parliament.”

Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, defended Japan’s response to the humanitarian and nuclear crises set off by the earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands and damaged a nuclear power station far surpassed what experts had planned for. Responses to disasters are rarely perfect, Edano said. But given the enormousness of the catastrophe, which included the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan and a historic tsunami, the government has done all that it could.[Source: Ken Belson and Andrew Pollack, New York Times, April 10, 2011]

Edano, who has effectively become the face of the government’s response, thanks to his daily news briefings, said “We believe that under very severe circumstances, with enough pressure placed on the government of having to make decisions of what needs to be done next, I believe we have selected the best option every time.” He declined to speculate on what the government could have done differently in the wake of the disaster but said the tsunami was beyond anyone’s imagination. People “were fully prepared for emergency situations based on the natural disaster information for the last 100 years or so,” he said, adding that “after everything is brought under control, experts need to verify what has happened and do some soul searching.”[Ibid]

Naoto Kan and the Government Handling of the Fukushima Crisis

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Kan in the tsunami zone
Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “At the drama’s heart was an outsider prime minister who saw the need for quick action but whose well-founded mistrust of a system of alliances between powerful plant operators, compliant bureaucrats and sympathetic politicians deprived him of resources he could have used to make better-informed decisions.” [Source: Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, New York Times, June 12, 2011]

“A onetime grass-roots activist, Mr. Kan struggled to manage the nuclear crisis because he felt he could not rely on the very mechanisms established by his predecessors to respond to such a crisis. Instead, he turned at the beginning only to a handful of close, overwhelmed advisers who knew little about nuclear plants and who barely exchanged information with the plant’s operator and nuclear regulators. Struggling to manage a humanitarian disaster caused by the tsunami, Mr. Kan improvised his government’s response to the worsening nuclear crisis, seeming to vacillate between personally intervening at the plant and leaving it to... TEPCO.” “There were delays. First of all, we weren’t getting accurate information from TEPCO,” said Kenichi Matsumoto, an adviser to Mr. Kan. But Mr. Matsumoto added that the prime minister’s distrust of TEPCO and bureaucrats “interfered” with the overall response.[Ibid]

“The early disarray alarmed the United States government enough that it increasingly urged the Japanese to take more decisive action, and to be more forthcoming in sharing information. Making matters worse was Mr. Kan’s initial reluctance to accept the help of the United States, which offered pump trucks, unmanned drones and the advice of American nuclear crisis experts.” “We found ourselves in a downward spiral, which hurt relations with the United States,” said Manabu Terada, a lawmaker who served as an aide to Mr. Kan at that time. “We lost credibility with America, and TEPCO lost credibility with us.” [Ibid]

“Even some supporters say that Mr. Kan could have moved faster and more decisively if he had used Japan’s existing crisis management system. The system was created in 1986 and subsequently strengthened by Japanese leaders who had sought more power for the prime minister. Modeled on crisis management in the White House---even down to the Situation Room under the prime minister’s office---the system brought together bureaucrats from various ministries under the direct command of the prime minister, said Atsuyuki Sassa, the head of the Cabinet Security Affairs Office in the late 1980s.” [Ibid]

“Critics and supporters alike said Mr. Kan’s decision to bypass this system, choosing instead to rely on a small circle of trusted advisers with little experience in handling a crisis of this scale, blocked him from grasping the severity of the disaster sooner. Sometimes those advisers did not even know all the resources available to them. This includes the existence of a nationwide system of radiation detectors known as the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, or Speedi.

An interim report released in October 2011 by a TEPCO panel said, "There is no evidence that [Kan's] visit delayed the start of venting." However, it did state: "Plant Manager [Masao] Yoshida briefed [Kan] on the emergency situation. A senior official stationed at the off-site [emergency response] center entered the nuclear plant to guide Kan around from the time of his arrival."

Naoto Kan and TEPCO and the Handling of the Fukushima Crisis

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government leaders meet
Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Kan’s critics and supporters alike say his suspicions of TEPCO were well-founded. In the early days after the March 11 disaster, TEPCO shared only limited information with the prime minister’s office, trying instead to play down the risks at the plant, they said.” [Source: Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, New York Times, June 12, 2011]

“Yet the Kan government essentially left the handling of the nuclear crisis in the crucial first three days to TEPCO, focusing instead on relief efforts for the hundreds of thousands left homeless, Mr. Terada and other aides said. Then on March 14, the gravity of the plant’s situation was revealed by a second explosion, this time at Reactor No. 3, and a startling request that night from TEPCO’s president, Masataka Shimizu: that TEPCO be allowed to withdraw its employees from the plant because it had become too dangerous to remain.” [Ibid]

“When he heard this, Mr. Kan flew into a rage, said aides and advisers who were present. Abandoning the plant would mean losing control of the four stricken reactors; the next day, explosions occurred at the two remaining active reactors, No. 2 and No. 4. “This is not a joke,” the prime minister yelled, according to the aides. They said Mr. Kan convened an emergency meeting early on March 15, asking advisers what more could be done to save the reactors. Then he gave TEPCO barely two hours’ warning that he planned to visit the company.” [Ibid]

At 5:30 a.m., Mr. Kan marched into TEPCO headquarters and stationed one of his most trusted aides, Goshi Hosono, there to keep tabs on the company. Mr. Kan gave a five-minute impromptu pep talk, said his aide, Mr. Terada. “Withdrawing from the plant is out of the question,” Mr. Kan told them. Advisers said the placement of Mr. Hosono in TEPCO was a turning point, helping the prime minister to take direct control of damage-control efforts at the plant. “For the first time, we knew what TEPCO was debating, and what they knew,” said one adviser, who asked not to be identified. [Ibid]

However, even Mr. Kan’s supporters acknowledge that the move came too late. “We should have moved faster,” said Masanori Aritomi, a nuclear engineer at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and an adviser to Mr. Kan. Mr. Aritomi said that even with Mr. Hosono stationed inside TEPCO, the company still did not disclose crucial information until mid-May, including final confirmation that three of the plant’s four active reactors had melted down. [Ibid]

SPEEDI, an Example of Poor Communication and Transparency During the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis

The System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, or SPEEDI, is a nationwide system of radiation detectors used to make forecasts of radiation diffusion patterns. Kan and his and his advisors did not learn of the system’s existence until March 16, five days into the crisis.” [Source: Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, New York Times, June 12, 2011]

“If they had known earlier, they would have seen Speedi’s early projections that radiation from the Fukushima plant would be blown northwest. Many of the residents around the plant who evacuated went north, on the assumption that winds blew south during winter in that area. That took them directly into the radioactive plume---exposing them to the very radiation that they were fleeing.” When officials at the Ministry of Education, which administers Speedi, were asked why they did not make the information available to the prime minister in those first crucial days, they replied that the prime minister’s office had not asked them for it. [Ibid]

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Prime Minister Kan at a disaster shelter

SPEEDI had been pumping out estimates of radiation doses once every hour since 4 p.m. on March 11. It had been showing that the Tsushima district was being hit with high radiation doses. This crucial information, however, was not passed on to town authorities. Mayor Tamotsu Baba said later, "We weren't told anything important." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 11, 2011]

According to the government's basic nuclear disaster plan, SPEEDI should be used to help make evacuation recommendations. The system cost more than 11 billion yen in taxpayer money to install. When Prime Minister Naoto Kan directed a disaster response drill at Chubu Electric Power Co.'s Hamaoka nuclear power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture last year, SPEEDI simulations were used to set evacuation areas. However, the March 11 calamity severed power at the Fukushima plant, meaning SPEEDI data could not be transmitted. The government said it did not make forecasts from the system public because "accurate predictions could not be made." [Ibid]

Despite the information blackout on radiation levels, SPEEDI continued to churn out useful data about radiation emissions immediately after the earthquake and tsunami by inputting provisional readings. On May 2, Goshi Hosono, special adviser to the prime minister on the Fukushima crisis, made public about 5,000 SPEEDI radiation-prediction images. Explaining why the disclosure had been so late, Hosono said the government had been "afraid of triggering a panic." [Ibid]

Commenting on the matter, Hirotada Hirose, professor emeritus of Tokyo Women's Christian University and specialist in risk psychology, tolf the Yomiuri Shimbun, "In a fast-changing crisis situation, delays in releasing information to try to ensure accuracy often aggravates people's suspicions and unease. Even if information is only about possible developments, data obtained through scientific methods should be disclosed. In the initial phase of the Fukushima crisis, scientifically valid forecasts should have been made public, with the understanding that the information would be modified immediately if the situation changed." [Ibid]

Friction Between Japan and the United States Over the Handling of the Fukushima Crisis

Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “The poor flow of information and ad hoc decision-making also strained Japan’s relationship with the United States, which has about 50,000 military personnel stationed in Japan. While Japan was quick to accept the American military’s offers to help victims of the tsunami, the perception in Washington in the early days, that it was being rebuffed and misled in the unfolding nuclear disaster, had created “a crisis in the United States-Japan alliance,” said Akihisa Nagashima, a former vice minister of defense.” [Source: Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, New York Times, June 12, 2011]

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China's Wen Jiabao and Kan at a disaster shelter

“Within 48 hours of the earthquake, officials from the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission arrived in Tokyo, but they were unable to get information or even arrange meetings with Japanese counterparts. Meanwhile, Washington became convinced that Tokyo was understating the damage at the plant, based on readings that the Americans were getting around the plant from aircraft and satellites normally used to monitor North Korean nuclear tests, said one American official, who asked not to be named. According to this official, the Obama administration made a decision “to lean on the Kan government” to share more information. On March 16, American officials, including the ambassador to Japan, John V. Roos, informed their Japanese counterparts that the United States would advise its citizens to evacuate an area 50 miles around the plant---much larger than the 18-mile voluntary evacuation zone then established by Japan.” [Ibid]

The Americans also began voluntary evacuations of nonessential personnel at their bases, and hinted at more drastic steps, even pulling out some essential military personnel, if Tokyo did not share more information, said this American official and Japanese officials, including Mr. Terada. To show Washington and an increasingly anxious Japanese public that utmost efforts were being made, Mr. Kan deployed military helicopters to drop water into the reactors, Mr. Terada and other Japanese advisers said, adding they knew this would have only a limited effect on cooling them. On March 17, on live television, the helicopters dropped water from the air, though strong winds clearly blew much of the water off course.” [Ibid]

Still, Mr. Terada said that Mr. Kan personally called President Obama to tell him the operation was a success. Later that day in Washington, Mr. Obama paid a visit to the Japanese Embassy to sign a book of condolences---a gesture seen in the prime minister’s office as a nod of approval by the American president. Mr. Nagashima said the American demands to be better informed ultimately improved Japan’s own response. On March 20, he brought a proposal to Mr. Kan for a daily meeting between American and Japanese officials to coordinate information and discuss responses to the nuclear accident.” [Ibid]

The first such meeting was held a day later at the prime minister’s office. Mr. Nagashima said the meetings lasted an hour and a half, and usually involved about 50 people, including officials from the American Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the United States Embassy and the military, as well as a far larger Japanese group made of political leaders, people from five ministries, from nuclear agencies and from TEPCO. The meeting was led by Mr. Hosono, who by then had become the prime minister’s point man on the nuclear response.” [Ibid]

“Mr. Nagashima said that even more important was what happened before the Americans arrived: the Japanese met an hour beforehand to discuss developments and to work out what they were going to tell the Americans. Mr. Nagashima said the meeting brought together the various ministries and TEPCO, with politicians setting the agenda, for the first time since the crisis began.” “The Japanese side needed to gather everybody in the same room,” Mr. Nagashima said. “U.S. irritation became a chance for Japan to improve its disaster management.” [Ibid]

Image Sources: Kantei, Office of the Japanese Prime Minister

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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