Return to Transcripts main page


Radioactive Substance Stolen; Japan Nuclear Plant; Rodman Heads Back to North Korea; Bolshoi Acid Victim Speaks Out; Obama Addresses Income Disparity, Inequality

Aired December 4, 2013 - 12:00   ET


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks for your company today.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we start in Mexico, where the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is helping in the search for a stolen truck carrying radioactive material. The material is cobalt 60, which the International Atomic Energy Agency says could be used to make so-called dirty bombs.

HOLMES: Yes, the agency says all of this happened Monday near Mexico City. The truck was transporting the material to a waste storage facility. Now, the IAEA says the material was properly shielded but could be very dangerous if that shield were damaged or removed. Joining us now, CNN's Rafael Romo, also Evan Perez.

Let's start with you, Rafael. Tell us about the kind of risk that this material presents in terms of that dirty bomb theory.

RAFAEL ROMO, CNN SENIOR LATIN AMERICAN AFFAIRS EDITOR: Well, one of the first questions was that exactly, Michael, whether it could be used to build a dirty bomb. And the risk is certainly great. But what we have found is that the cobalt that was stolen in the truck more than likely could not be used for that purpose and here's why.

Just a few moments ago, I spoke with an employee at the hospital in Tijuana, Mexico, where the cobalt originated. And he told me that it came from a radio therapy machine that had been in operation for 30 years and was not working properly. Cobalt, as you know, is radioactive, but has a half-life of only five years and apparently was being disposed of in Mexico because it was already spent. So that's what we've learned this morning.

WHITFIELD: And so how did the robbery actually unfold? Is it believed that this was an intentional target, the truck, or might this have been pure coincidence?

ROMO: At this point it doesn't appear it was intentional. The truck containing the cobalt was stolen in a town called Tepojaco. This is a town just north of Mexico City, about 44 kilometers north. The International Atomic Energy Agency issued an alert saying that at the time the truck was stolen, the source was properly shielded. The IAEA also said that the cobalt can be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the shielding or damaged.

Now, the use of cobalt 60 in the medical field consists primarily of cancer therapy. Most exposure occurs intentionally during medical tests and treatments. And this is the dangerous part, Michael and Fred. Gamma rays released from it can cause cancer after extended exposure.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said in a speech last year that cobalt 60 could be used to make so-called dirty bombs, but again the cobalt stolen may not be in any condition to be used for anything more. And one thing more, the use -- the Department of Homeland Security is involved in the investigation in Mexico trying to find the cobalt.

WHITFIELD: All right.

HOLMES: Well, that's some good news anyway. But perhaps, yes, that's new information.

All right, let's go to Evan now standing by.

Evan, what are U.S. authorities doing to try to help out here, track down this truck? Are they doing anything to help out?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes, they've issued an alert to all the law enforcement agencies along the border. And the Homeland Security Department itself has these sensors that are deployed with border agents which they can use to wand any type of truck that comes through a border crossing to try to detect whether any of this material is coming through.

Now, as Rafael has mentioned, it is a very big concern obviously. For many years now, the Homeland Security Department has worried that someone could try to pass something like this across the border to try to detonate some kind of bomb.

Now as Rafael has also mentioned, it's a very difficult thing to do. This thing is encased in lead. It is very difficult to extract. There are these little chunks of cobalt 60 and now if someone were to handle it, was to even hold it for a few minutes, it is a very dangerous thing and could cause permanent damage.

But it is not something that is easily done. And so, at this point, I think they're just trying to help the Mexican government figure out whether this was just taken by somebody who was targeting some of the scrap material that was on the truck that was taken, Fredricka and Michael. And at this point they're trying to figure out, you know, how to track it down.

WHITFIELD: Sure. All right, Evan Perez, keep us posted as you learn any new information. And Rafael Romo also. Thanks for that reporting

HOLMES: It seems extraordinary, doesn't it?

WHITFIELD: It really is.

HOLMES: It was at a gas station. Went to pop in and get something from the gas station. The truck gets stolen with that stuff in it. Oh, my goodness. WHITFIELD: Happening very quickly.

All right, well, the IAEA says good progress on another case is being made in the toughest nuclear clean-up ever attempted. It's underway right now in Japan at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

HOLMES: Yes, it must be said, radioactive water is still poisoning the sea around the plant. Now, this is more than two years after the nuclear disaster. But in a new report, inspectors point to two important things right now happening. Nuclear fuel being removed from one of the four damaged reactors, also radioactive leakage is being reduced.

WHITFIELD: CNN's Anna Coren has gotten very close to the recovery work there, closer than any other journalist, and she takes us deep inside the nuclear plant to explain the risky clean-up operation in this CNN exclusive.


ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are here inside reactor four at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that was severely crippled during the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, leading to the country's worst nuclear disaster. It was in here where there was that massive hydrogen explosion that severely damaged the building, but this was the least damaged of the four reactors because it was under maintenance and it wasn't actually operating.

Well, now, two and a half years later, Tepco says it's reached a milestone. That massive crane behind me is successfully moving 1,500 fuel rods in that cooling pool to a storage pool next door. It's a slow and delicate process that will take about a year, but once finished, it will mean that this reactor can be decommissioned.

Well, attention will then turn to reactors one, two, and three that suffered far worse damage. The situation there is serious and levels of radiation are dangerously high. Workers have begun moving debris, but the clean-up inside the reactors is a long way off. Officials here say the entire plant won't be decommissioned for at least 40 years.

Well, as for the future of nuclear power in Japan, no one really knows. More than 50 reactors have been shut down with the public very concerned about their health and safety. But Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to reopen them, believing that Japan can have a safe nuclear future.

Anna Coren, CNN, Fukushima, Japan.


WHITFIELD: On to France now where lawmakers voted just moments ago to make it illegal to pay for sex. The move by the national assembly would criminalize prostitution for the client, not the prostitute. Paying for sex is currently legal in France.

HOLMES: Yes, it's a big issue over there. Now, if the measure does become law, it's got a few more steps to go. People caught paying for sex would face fines of at least 1,500 euros. That's a little bit over $2,000. The French president would have to sign the bill and it also has to get through the senate. But before that even happens, that vote could come as late as next summer. But certainly making headlines in France.

WHITFIELD: And depending on where you are, brace yourselves for an arctic invasion. Temperatures will plummet across much of the U.S.

HOLMES: Yes, a bit chilly up north at the moment. Snow, ice, sleet, rain, all in the forecast today. There is already heavy snow in the Rockies, also the upper Midwest around Minnesota.

WHITFIELD: Minneapolis could get as much as 10 inches. Commuters in Utah are bracing for bitter cold and ice on top of the snow that they are already coping with.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How is your drive so far today?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Awful. I got up early this morning and it was pretty bad then too.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Be really careful or it can cost you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I had to go rescue my son at American Fork (ph) and -

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What happened to your son?



WHITFIELD: Wow. And that's Utah, where, you know, snow is really usually no big deal. Now, look at Nevada. Check out the snowy commute there in Reno. Tomorrow and Friday there is ice in the forecast from north Texas to Oklahoma and Missouri. And, of course, that will impact travel for all people in those regions. Highs behind the winter storm will drop well below average. For example, Dallas will drop from 80 degrees today, balmy, to 31 on Friday.


WHITFIELD: It's no fair (ph).

HOLMES: Fifty degree swing.

WHITFIELD: That's huge.

HOLMES: You're telling me.

WHITFIELD: (INAUDIBLE) miserable, potentially.

HOLMES: For people - yes. I mean, And in the southeast as well, as we know here in Atlanta, it's been rain, rain, rain. A little bit of fog thrown in.

WHITFIELD: More of it.

HOLMES: All good fun.

WHITFIELD: More of it on the way.

HOLMES: It's December, come on.

WHITFIELD: OK. All right already, huh?


WHITFIELD: All right, more of what we're working on this hour for "AROUND THE WORLD".

Look at this incredible image here. A desperate attempt now being made to save dozens of -- these are pilot whales in the Florida Everglades.

HOLMES: Yes. We've got a live report coming up from Miami.

Also this. Need more proof that he really is the pope of the people? Well, how about revelations that Pope Francis was once a bouncer at a nightclub. He was probably very polite though.

WHITFIELD: I'm sure.


WHITFIELD: Would you kindly leave like right now?

HOLMES: Please.

WHITFIELD: All that and more on the pontiff.


WHITFIELD: All right, here are stories making news around the world right now.

Men with guns shot a man dead in Lebanon today. He was a top military commander in the militant group Hezbollah.

HOLMES: Yes, he's a big deal, this guy, Hassan al-Laqis. Now, he was killed outside his home in Beirut coming home from work. A little known Sunni group has claimed responsibility in a Twitter message, but it's very hard to confirm that.

Hezbollah blamed Israel initially, as it often does, calling it an assassination. Israeli officials very quickly denied having anything to do with his death. But this is seen as a bit of a blow for Hezbollah. This guy was pretty senior, very close to the leader of Hezbollah, Nasrallah. Now we're watching closely for more developments out of Beirut.

WHITFIELD: And to Beijing now. Lots of pump and ceremony as China's president welcomed Vice President Joe Biden. The president called Biden an old friend and praised U.S.-China relations. Biden described the relationship between the two countries as full of promise.

Their public remarks gave no hint of the tension; however, between the United States and China concerning air space over the East China Sea. However, senior officials traveling with the vice president say during private talks, Biden told President Xi that the U.S. does not recognize China's newly declared air defense zone over that disputed area and that the U.S. has deep concerns about the situation.

HOLMES: This is about as delicate as a regional situation can get. Just yesterday, Biden assured Japanese leaders that he would push China over the issue.


JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We, the United States, are deeply concerned by the attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea. This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation.


HOLMES: And that is the big fear, of course. And this dispute could put U.S. ties with China to the test, or a little bit under pressure. We did get word from a senior administration official that Mr. Biden did say to the Chinese that they don't -- the U.S. does not recognize this zone. They don't accept it. They don't recognize it. It's going to be interesting to see how that plays out. There will be a lot of testing involved.

WHITFIELD: OK, and still in that general region, retired NBA star Dennis Rodman is once again headed to North Korea. Rodman will help train the North Korean basketball team this month, according to the company sponsoring his trip. The online betting company says the team will play at least one exhibition game against former NBA players in January.

HOLMES: Of course, Rodman was -- got pretty chummy with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, last time he was there. Rodman calls him friend for life when they met back in February. Maybe he can do a little bit of diplomacy on the side. We'll see.

WHITFIELD: And horrible attack that nearly blinded the former artistic director of the famed Bolshoi Ballet.

HOLMES: Sergei Filin is his name, and you can see him there, wearing sunglasses to shield his eyes after acid was thrown at his face. Now, as we have reported here, the attackers are in jail. They're doing time, but if something like that happened to you, could you ever imagine moving on?

We're going to go to Moscow now where, in this exclusive interview, our Matthew Chance spoke with Sergei Filin for the first time publicly since his attackers were given that jail time yesterday.


SERGEI FILIN, BOLSHOI ACID VICTIM: It's not just problem only with my eyes. There's problem with my heart.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Disfigured and half blinded by the acid, the Bolshoi's artistic director has followed the trial of his attackers in agony.

Even their sentencing has done little to ease his pain. You say you accept the verdict, but, of course, your eyesight has been damaged possibly for the rest of your life. Can you forgive the people that carried out this attack against you?

FILIN (via translator): Of course not. I cannot forgive them because there is no sentence nor punishment that would enable me to recover my eyesight.

CHANCE: As a dancer, Sergei Filin was one of Russia's brightest stars, but his artistic leadership of the Bolshoi ballet, Russia's most prominent cultural icon has been marred by scandal, including his own horrific attacking with sulfuric acid outside his Moscow home.

FILIN (via translator): What I felt was unbearable agony. It hurt all over my skin, and I immediately felt an atrocious pain in my eyes. There was lots of snow around and I slid and fell several times. But I felt the cold snow was relieving the pain so I started covering my face with it.

CHANCE: He was eventually helped by passers-by, but the damage was already done. When it emerged a leading dancer, Pavel Dmitrichenko, was behind the attack, the dark rivalries and score-settling at the heart of the Bolshoi were laid bare, amid allegations of affairs, corruption, and jealousy.

Now, obviously, nothing can justify the horrific injuries that you've received, but when you think about what happened to you, if you could go back, would you do anything differently? Do you feel that you in some way provoked this?

FILIN (via translator): I think no. Those accusations that we have heard have not been underpinned by any evidence. They are all lies aimed at lessening the degree of guilt or punishment for this crime.

CHANCE: A crime for which the guilty will pay, and the victim will continue to suffer.

Matthew Chance, CNN, Aachen, Germany.


WHITFIELD: What an extraordinary story. And this, too has, caught a lot of people's attention, a celebrity chef in court on the stand admitting that she used cocaine.

HOLMES: Yeah, she's not the one on trial, though. Find out why she did not want to testify in this court case. We're live from London, coming up after the break.


HOLMES: The U.S. president, Barack Obama, has just finished speaking. He was giving a speech in Washington at the Center for American Progress, speaking about the economy and also the government's potential to help address what he said was the United States' rising inequality.

Here's part of what he just had to say about paying for a college education.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When Michelle, the daughter of a shift worker at a water plant and a secretary, wanted to go to college, just like me, this country helped us afford it, until we could pay it back.

So what drives me as a grandson, a son, a father, as an American is to make sure that every striving, hard-working optimistic kid in America has the same incredible chance that this country gave me.


WHITFIELD: And many will probably remember that the president and the first lady have been very open about it took so many years to pay off those loans. They were 40-years-old before finally paying off those loans.

Let's talk to Jim Acosta now from the White House with more on the president's message about affording education, the disparity of economics in this corrupt, et cetera.


I think a couple of things were going on there. One is, the president's message, let's talk about that for a few moments.

And you're right. He was talking about income disparity, income inequality, and he laid out some markers there for some things he'd like to see the Congress pass, some things that, by the way, the Congress is not likely to pass because it's so deeply divided right now. And they've sort of been at war with the White House, at least on the House Republican side

And that is he's called for a hike in the minimum wage. He says that unemployment benefits, emergency unemployment benefits should be extended at the end of the year. House Republicans have been cool to that idea. And so there was a political element, obviously, to this speech today.

He's also trying to reconnect with his base. I mean, keep in mind, this base has been dispirited somewhat in recent weeks because of the botched rollout of So I think there's also some of that, as well. And on that front, we should point out that in the last hour, a source familiar with the enrollment numbers for the Affordable Care Act has confirmed to CNN that they have enrolled about 29,000 people in the first two days since the website was deemed to be working for the vast majority of Americans. So since December 1st, those first two days, 29,000 people enrolled, that is more than the entire month of October. So people inside the administration are starting to feel more confident about that.

And, as you heard, at the tail end of the president's remarks in the speech here in Washington, he went after Republicans on Obamacare, challenging them on these ideas of repeal and saying that Republicans owe it to the American people to tell them what they're for when it comes to health care reform, not just being against the Affordable Care Act.

A couple things going on in the president's speech, rallying the base, also going after Republicans laying markers down for the budget battles to come.

HOLMES: That issue is becoming more and more talked about, income inequality, wealth disparity if you like, which is very marked in the United States. Is there a sense in Washington this could become a big election issue?

ACOSTA: I think it could be. One thing the president did mention, and White House officials have said, is that this is sort of a preview of some of what he'll be talking about in the State of the Union speech.

Not only today is, he's going to be talking about when he gives his state of the union address. That takes us into the midterm election cycle we're going to be seeing getting very, very fierce in the next several months.

Yes, you're going to hear the president talk about this more. We are dealing with divided government. I mean, they can't even avoid a government shutdown it seems at times.

And by the way, that is also looming in the start of next year. And so to think that the Republican House of Representatives is going to hike the minimum wage, extend emergency unemployment benefits and do all of these other infrastructure and shakes enhancements that the president would like to do, investments the president would like to do, is not realistic at this point and the president is not saying these things because he's Pollyannaish about it but there are battle lines being drawn with the Republicans to take us into the election year.

HOLMES: The realities of Washington, where not much gets done, sadly. Yeah, all right, Jim, we'll leave it there, Jim Acosta there, on the spot.

Yeah, the president calling for that increase in the minimum wage, saying it will be good for the economy, good for families.

WHITFIELD: Impacting a lot of people, potentially changing or enhancing a lot of lives. HOLMES: Yeah.

WHITFIELD: Overseas now, a celebrity chef in court on the stand admitting that she used cocaine.

HOLMES: Find out why she didn't want to testify about that in particular. Who could blame her?

We're live from London. That is coming up, next.