Illinois Public Media News
The U.S. government's new system to replace the five color-coded terror alerts will have two levels of warnings - elevated and imminent - that will be relayed to the public only under certain circumstances for limited periods of time, sometimes using Facebook and Twitter, according to a draft Homeland Security Department plan obtained by The Associated Press.
Some terror warnings could be withheld from the public entirely if announcing a threat would risk exposing an intelligence operation or an ongoing investigation, according to the government's confidential plan.
Like a gallon of milk, the new terror warnings will each come with a stamped expiration date.
The 19-page document, marked "for official use only" and dated April 1, describes the step-by-step process that would occur behind the scenes when the government believes terrorists might be threatening Americans. It describes the sequence of notifying members of Congress, then counterterrorism officials in states and cities and then governors and mayors and, ultimately, the public. It specifies even details about how many minutes U.S. officials can wait before organizing urgent conference calls among themselves to discuss pending threats. It places the Homeland Security secretary, currently Janet Napolitano, in charge of the so-called National Terrorism Advisory System.
The new terror alerts would also be published online using Facebook and Twitter "when appropriate," the plan said, but only after federal, state and local government leaders have already been notified. The new system is expected to be in place by April 27.
The government has always struggled with how much information it can share with the public about specific threats, sometimes over fears it would reveal classified intelligence or law enforcement efforts to disrupt an unfolding plot. But the color warnings that became one of the government's most visible anti-terrorism programs since the September 2001 attacks were criticized as too vague to be useful and became fodder for late-night talk shows.
The new advisory system is designed to be easier to understand and more specific, but it's impossible to know how often the public will receive these warnings. The message will always depend on the threat and the intelligence behind it.
For example, if there is a specific threat that terrorists were looking to hide explosives in backpacks around U.S. airports, the government might issue a public warning that would be announced in airports telling travelers to remain vigilant and report any unattended backpacks or other suspicious activity to authorities.
If the intelligence community believes a terror threat is so serious that an alert should be issued, the warning would offer specific information for specific audiences. The Homeland Security secretary would make the final decision on whether to issue an alert and to whom - sometimes just to law enforcement and other times to the public.
According to the draft plan, an "elevated" alert would warn of a credible threat against the U.S. It would not likely specify timing or targets, but it could reveal terrorist trends that intelligence officials believe should be shared in order to prevent an attack. That alert would expire after no more than 30 days but could be extended.
An "imminent" alert would warn about a credible, specific and impending terrorist threat or an on-going attack against the U.S. That alert would expire after no more than seven days but could be extended.
There hasn't been a change in the color warnings since 2006, despite an uptick in attempted attacks and terror plots against the U.S. That's because the counterterrorism community has found other ways to notify relevant people about a particular threat. In December 2010, intelligence officials learned that a terrorist organization was looking to use insulated beverage containers to hide explosives. That information was relayed to the aviation industry to be watchful. Less formal warnings like that will continue under the new system.
In the past, there was no established system for determining whether to raise or lower the threat level, said James Carafano, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. In part because of this, travelers heard about nonspecific orange threats in airports since August 2006 when the government responded to an al-Qaida plot to detonate liquid explosive bombs hidden in soft drink bottles on aircraft bound for the United States and Canada.
While there was coordination among U.S. counterterrorism officials about the threat, "It was pretty much kind of a gut call," said Carafano, who was on a 2009 advisory committee to review the color alerts and suggest ways to improve them.
According to the draft plan, before an official alert is issued, there is a multi-step process that must be followed, starting with intelligence sharing among multiple federal, state and local agencies, including the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and the White House. If the threat is considered serious enough, a Homeland Security official will call for a meeting of a special counterterrorism advisory board. That board would be expected to meet within 30 minutes of being called, and if it's decided an alert is necessary, it would need to be issued within two hours.
"The plan is not yet final, as we will continue to meet and exercise with our partners to finalize a plan that meets everyone's needs," Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says the size of the evacuation zones around the six nuclear power plants in Illinois should be reviewed.
Kirk and fellow U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin held a forum Friday with a panel of four nuclear experts that resembled a congressional hearing to talk about safety in Illinois in the wake of the disaster in Japan.
Four of Illinois' 11 reactors are almost identical to those involved in Japan's nuclear crisis. Exelon Corp. owns the plants and says they're safe.
Officials sought to assure the senators that Illinois plants are safe and have multiple layers of safeguards.
Kirk and Durbin also were interested in making sure the state's stockpile of potassium iodide pills for people in evacuation zones is consistent with new 2010 census numbers.
Meanwhile, officials in Iowa were questioning just how safe are nuke power plants in and near Iowa?
Nuclear power plants in and around Iowa generally are operating safely, but there have been violations in the past as more safety questions arise because of the nuclear crisis in Japan and as Iowa lawmakers consider legislation making it easier to build another plant in Iowa, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission records.
Illinois has a nuclear plant in Cordova, located on the Mississippi River across from Davenport. Iowa has one nuclear power plant, the Duane Arnold Energy Center near Cedar Rapids. Nebraska has two plants on the Missouri River - The Fort Calhoun Station north of Omaha and Cooper Station near Brownville.
The Des Moines Register on Friday reported the plants have had no fines in the past five years, but have been cited by federal regulators.
The newspaper, which reviewed Nuclear Regulatory Commission records, reported that Nebraska's Fort Calhoun Station is one of three plants in the United States facing the highest level of regulatory scrutiny. That's because the plant's safety systems were found last year to be in danger of flooding, according to records.
Inspectors found the plant didn't have enough sand to fill bags that operators planned to place on a flood wall to protect buildings and equipment.
"We're going through all our procedures in fairly quick order not only for NRC, but also because of events in Japan," said Fort Calhoun spokesman Jeff Hanson.
There's an adequate stockpile of sand in place now, but the plant will continue to be inspected frequently because the violation was consider a "substantial" safety risk.
The other plants in or near Iowa were cited for less serious problems, records show.
In the past five years, the Iowa plant received notification of four violations that occurred between 2003 and 2009, said Renee Nelson, spokeswoman for NextEra Energy Resources, which owns 70 percent of the plant.
No fines were issued. The violations involved a diesel generator problem, a deficiency in drills and planning, failure to complete a checklist before moving fuel bundles and failing to properly notify health personnel.
"Protecting the health and safety of the public through safe power operations is always our top priority. We take any and all feedback from the NRC very seriously," said Renee Nelson, spokeswoman for NextEra Energy's plant in Iowa.
Nelson said two of the findings occurred and were resolved to the satisfaction of the NRC more than two years ago. Both represented "low safety significance," she said.
The other findings were related to events in 2003 and 2004, and were specifically related to proper procedure use, not plant safety, Nelson said.
The NRC determined that the plant "operated in a manner that preserved public health and safety and met all cornerstone objectives," according to the agency's latest assessment released March 4.
Last week, NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko said U.S. nuclear plants "are designed to withstand significant natural phenomena. ... We believe we have a very sold and strong regulatory structure in place right now."
But the Union of Concerned Scientist, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit that focuses on environmental and safety issues, said U.S. plants have "the same key vulnerability" that led to the crisis in Japan.
"The basic problem is that the Japanese reactors lost both their normal and back-up power supplies, which are used to cool fuel rods and the reactor core," the organization said in a statement.
Victor Dricks, a NRC spokesman in Dallas, whose regional includes the Nebraska plants, told the Register that redundant safety systems, backup power supplies and several methods for shutting down reactors at U.S. plants make disasters such as the one in Japan extremely unlikely.
Most plants get their electricity from two or three high-power lines. If those should fail, there are two sets of backup diesel generators that come on automatically and are housed in buildings designed to withstand tornadoes, fires, earthquakes, floods and tsunamis, Dricks said.
Illinois tax collectors have a message for residents who skirt sales taxes online and out of state: Start paying up.
The cash-strapped state will step up enforcement this year of the decades-old "use tax," which applies to many items bought online or in another state. Officials have added reminders on this year's paper and online tax forms about the tax.
The state has made a recent push to collect sales taxes from retailers like Amazon.com Inc. and Overstock.com Inc., approving a law this month that led both companies to drop affiliates in the state.
But Susan Hofer, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Revenue, says auditors will target "big ticket" purchases, like boats sold in Florida, over smaller purchases online.
"If you go online and buy a book on Amazon, it's your conscience that you have to live with," Hofer said.
The tax applies to any purchases made with a sales tax rate lower than Illinois' 6.25 percent, to protect in-state retailers that charge the tax.
For shoppers who didn't keep their receipts, the state has published a list of suggested "use tax" amounts based on income: $15 for people who made $20,000 last year, $27 for people making $50,000, and $52 for people making $100,000.
That's not including taxes on major purchases like boats or cars.
Residents can also pay back taxes on purchases as far back as 2004, thanks to state law passed last year.
The revenue department estimates that Internet shopping could have generated $153 million last year if online retailers were taxed at the state rate. Illinois lawmakers have tried to collect from Amazon and others, which say they shouldn't pay taxes in the state because they don't have offices there.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill this month that charges sales taxes on online purchases made through Illinois affiliates of online companies. That led to Amazon announcing it would end its relationships with state affiliates.
Hofer acknowledged the difficulty revenue auditors face with online shopping.
"How would I or one of our enforcers know if you went home every night and spent five hours shopping on Amazon?" she said.
The state won't have statistics on how many residents will pay until the end of tax season, Hofer said. But interviews with accountants suggest most people either haven't made untaxed purchases or aren't reporting them.
"I've had one client out of 300 volunteer to pay it," said Julie Herwitt, a Chicago accountant. She said she believes most of her clients don't know the tax exists.
At the Bird Armour LLC accounting firm in Springfield, fewer than 5 percent of the 350 returns finished so far have made "use tax" payments, managing member Michael K. Armour said.
"I must admit that I am surprised at the number of people that have come forward," he said.
Last year, the state collected an estimated $4 million to $6 million from the tax. The department hopes that will double this year, Hofer said.
"We expect that people will pay what they owe, recognizing this is part of their responsibility as a citizen," she said.
(Photo courtesy of Rob Lee/Flickr)
A University of Illinois alert Thursday morning indicating that there was a shooter on campus was sent out in error, according to University officials.
The alert sent out at about 10:40 AM told the university community to "Escape area if safe to do so or shield/secure your location." Within about 15 minutes, Illini-Alert sent out a follow-up email saying that message was sent out in error. The U of I says a worker updating an emergency-message template inadvertently sent the message rather than saving it.
In a statement, the University's Chief of Police Barbara O'Connor said: "PLEASE DISREGARD THE ILLINI-ALERT MESSAGE SENT REGARDING THE ACTIVE SHOOTER ON CAMPUS! The Illini-Alert message was sent accidentally. We sincerely apologize for this accident."
U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says employees at the campus' information technology service were working on ways to upgrade the alert system in light of Wednesday's fire in Campustown.
"Workers were simply updating some of the emergency templates that we have on hand for such incidents," she said. "And in the process of typing, someone accidentally hit 'send' instead of 'save."
Kaler said she realizes the original message was a frightening thing, but she said she would rather receive an alert of something not happening, than for an incident to go unreported.
MESSAGE ABOUT THE MISTAKEN ALERT
To the campus community:
This morning at 10:40, an Illini-Alert message was sent to 87,000 email addresses and cellphones indicating there was an active shooter or threat of an active shooter on the Urbana campus. The message was sent accidentally while pre-scripted templates used in the Illini-Alert system were being updated. The updates were being made in response to user feedback in order to enhance information provided in the alerts.
The alert sent today was caused by a person making a mistake. Rather than pushing the SAVE button to update the pre-scripted message, the person pushed the SUBMIT button. We are working with the provider of the Illini-Alert service to implement additional security features in the program to prevent this type of error.
The alert system is designed to send all messages as quickly as possible. The messages generally leave the sending server within two minutes. This design is essential for emergency communications. However, this prevented the cancellation of the erroneous alert once it was sent.
Additionally, once we send an emergency message, we are dependent on the cellular telephone providers to deliver the text message to the owner of the cellphone. This is a recognized issue with all text-messaging systems. This is one reason we use multiple communication mechanisms, including email and our Emergency Web alert system, which is automatically activated when we send an Illini-Alert message. We cannot rely solely on text messages to inform our community of an emergency.
The Chief of Police has charged the campus emergency planning office with reviewing and documenting todays incident. We are reviewing comments we are receiving as a result of the incident and will implement all reasonable and appropriate ideas or suggestions.
We recognize the campus community relies on us to provide accurate and timely emergency information. We are working diligently to improve our processes so that this type of incident does not happen again. Finally, we apologize for the confusion and emotional distress caused by the initial alert.
Barbara R. O'Connor, J.D. Executive Director of Public Safety Chief of Police University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign http://www.publicsafety.illinois.edu
Mike Corn Chief Privacy and Security Officer Office of the Chief Information Officer This mailing approved by:The Office of the Chief of Police
As the U.S. electric car market gears up this year, utility company Ameren is showing off one of the models.
Company spokesman Leigh Morris says its 17-day test drive of Mitsubishi's i-MiEV is intended to show that the utility is prepared to handle charging for either all-electric cars as well as hybrids. He says the utility will provide free electric upgrades needed to charge the vehicle, like a new transformer in the home.
The I-MiEV is aimed at the European market, but a similar model is expected to arrive in the U.S. this fall, and has a maximum driving range of about 85 miles. Morris says Ameren is also showing off the car to give the consumer some options:
"This type of a vehicle is probalby ideally suited for somebody who does a lot of urban-type driving," he said. "Because you're not going to get in it and drive to St. Louis. It has that limitation of the 85 miles. The fact of the matter is, an all-electric car is not going to be suited for everybody."
Morris said Ameren Illinois plans to purchase four plug-in hybrid bucket trucks of its own soon.
"We're also going to be test-driving the (Chevy) Volt as well as the Nissan Leaf," he said. "And I would not be surprised if down the road as become vehicles become available, if we don't try those out as well. This is all a learning curve for everybody. I think we're really at the birth of the electric car."
The I-Miev charges with a 120-volt outlet for about 12 hours, but consumers can purchase higher-voltage charging stations. Ameren is taking the electric car to 16 cities in its market over the next couple of weeks, including Champaign-Urbana, Peoria, Decatur, and the St. Louis area.
The number of broadband Internet connections in Illinois has exceeded the number of phone landlines for the first time, a sign that the use of traditional phone service continues to decline.
The number of high-speed Internet connections in the state rose to 6.4 million last year, while the number of phone landlines dropped 31 percent to 6.2 million, The State Journal-Register of Springfield reported. But both numbers are dwarfed by the number of Illinois wireless subscribers: about 11.6 million last year.
Federal and state regulators released the figures Monday.
Illinois legislators rewrote the state's telecommunications law last year to include three landline options with cheap rates that can't be increased.
AT&T and other communications companies supported the bill, which lifted many state regulations on landlines. Supporters of the overhaul said it would bring new jobs and allow companies to focus on developing broadband and other technologies.
Jim Zolnierek, the Illinois Commerce Commission's director of telecommunications, told the Journal-Register that he expected "to see these same trends continue going forward."
(Photo courtesy of Anderson Mancini/Flickr)
Illinois' two U.S. Senators want to know more about the safety of the state's nuclear reactors.
Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk plan a hearing to get more details on the nuclear industry in Illinois. The move comes in the wake of radiation fears in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami.
Durbin said with Illinois' eleven nuclear reactors, questions should be asked.
"When you consider that half the power in Illinois comes from nuclear power, we are concerned about this and should be," he said. "I have no reason to believe they are dangerous at all but I do believe this is a wake up call."
Durbin said the state's residents deserve to hear what is being done to prepare for a possible disaster. He added that he remains a supporter of nuclear energy although safety at the sites and the disposal of nuclear waste are issues that demand scrutiny.
Illinois has 11 nuclear reactors, and six are boiling water reactors similar to ones affected by the devastation in Japan. One is about 40 miles away from Urbana in Clinton.
VIDEO EXTRA: James Stubbins, head of nuclear engineering at the U of I, says about a third of the country's nuclear reactors are similar to the ones affected by the devastation in Japan. He asses the stability of U.S. reactors against natural disasters. To hear more from an interview he did with WILL's David Inge, click here: http://tinyurl.com/5tcpl2e
Any day now, Champaign County officials will learn if a new chemical processing plant will set up shop in the community.
Few details are being released about the facility. John Dimit, the chief executive officer of the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, said officials from the company are reviewing seven sites in addition to Champaign County to host the plant.
"It's actually a type of facility that takes industrial waste - steel mill waste in particular - and recaptures the waste, concentrates it and re-sells it," Dimit explained.
Dimit said the chemical plant would employee around 200 people, and be located north of the community in an area ready for development. He said the company behind the project intends to invest $250 million to have it completed by 2013.
When a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan last week, Michael Bekiares was on the 19th floor of an office building in Tokyo. The building shook for 11 minutes during the quake. Bekiares grew up in Champaign and studied economics at the University of Illinois. He moved to Japan about 13 years ago for a job in finance, and now lives about 200 miles from the earthquake's epicenter. Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers spoke to Bekiares from Tokyo using Skype.
(Photo courtesy of Michael Bekiares)
Quinn Signs Law to Collect Online Sales Tax
Illinois consumers may find themselves paying sales taxes on some Internet purchases under a new state law.
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