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Coalition Airstrikes in Libya; Deadly Uprising in Syria; Political Unrest in Mideast Spreads; Disaster in Japan

Aired March 25, 2011 - 23:00   ET



DR. SANJAY GUPTA, GUEST HOST: And I'm Sanjay Gupta. Anderson is going to be back on Monday.

We're going to have the latest on Libya in just a moment. First though, the chaotic and violent situation in Syria goes from bad to worse.


GUPTA: Those are government protesters under gunfire today in the city of Sanamain. And a U.N. spokesman says at least 37 people have been killed in the city of Daraa over the past week, including two children. We'll have much more on that later in the hour.

Now Libya, though. The top commander of the U.S. military operation in Libya says NATO has agreed in principle to not only take over the no-fly zone, but also the broader mission of protecting civilians. And he said it's all going to happen very soon.

Here's what General Carter Ham said today on "THE SITUATION ROOM."


GEN. CARTER HAM, COMMANDER, U.S. AFRICA COMMAND: We expect that NATO will take over the no-fly zone this weekend. And then the next piece, the third and final piece, is the mission to protect civilians. NATO -- it is my understanding NATO has agreed to that in principle and will, this weekend, decide on the -- the procedures and the timing of accepting that mission.

But I'm -- I think that will probably occur in the very near future.


GUPTA: Ham also said that removing Moammar Gadhafi from power by military means is not the aim of the mission, and the coalition isn't arming the opposition.

But the coalition strikes on Gadhafi's mechanism of power continue. Authorities say coalition fighter planes took out seven Libyan tanks in 24 hours. In fact, we got this video from the British Ministry of Defense showing British aircraft destroying those Libyan regime tanks. And this, which is said to be Canadian forces bombing a Gadhafi weapons depot. Just yesterday, a new round of missions, French fighter jets, taking off from the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea.

Arab nations are contributing resources as well. The United Arab Emirates says it will send a dozen planes to help patrol the no-fly zone in the coming days. And just today, the joint task force released this picture of a Qatari jet taking off in support of the operations.

Now, back in the United States, pressure has been mounting for President Obama to talk to the American people about Libya and we got word today that he's going to do just that Monday evening.

The President did update congressional leaders in a conference call today. And afterward, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said the administration has to do more to make it clear what the objective in Libya is and the United States' role in it.

U.S. officials have been saying this week that members of Gadhafi's inner circle have been reaching out to the United States and to Arab states and today the U.S. ambassador to Libya said it's still not exactly clear what they want. In fact, here's exactly what he said.


GENE CRETZ, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO LIBYA: It's clear that the -- the regime is -- is reaching out to several possible mediators, interlocutors to try to get a message across. I'm not exactly sure what the message is, but it -- it clearly indicates I think at least -- some kind of desperation I think at this point.


GUPTA: Meanwhile, fierce fighting does continue in Ajdabiya, refugees streaming out of the city, reporting a grim scene, some telling CNN that there are dead bodies in the street because no one dares to go and recover them.

Let's get the latest on this from the ground in Libya. Arwa Damon joins us live from Benghazi, and in Tripoli, Nic Robertson.

Nic, the Gadhafi regime took you to -- took you to the outskirts of Tripoli today to show you civilian casualties from airstrikes, they say. What -- what did you actually see?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they took us to a farm on the eastern outskirts of the city, where there was a missile or some sort of small missile had impacted in a farming compound area near some houses.

The houses showed some damage from shrapnel. But we got conflicting stories about casualties there. One person said that it was an old woman. One person said it was a young child. One person said the strike happened at 8:00 p.m.., one person said the strike happened at 5:00 a.m.

So it didn't add up with what the government was telling us. But what we did see when we were driving out were military bases, two military bases, smoke rising from them after coalition strikes. One of those bases we could actually see the damage to the infrastructure inside the base. We saw a radar installation which works in conjunction with a surface-to-air missile system.

That had been impacted and taken out. But also we saw evidence of how Gadhafi is moving his anti-aircraft equipment, around anti- aircraft guns camouflaged, dug in at the side of the road and also small mobile surface-to-air missiles taken outside of their military bases and hidden with operators under trees.

So his -- his sort of defenses against aircraft aren't entirely destroyed so far -- Sanjay.

GUPTA: Yes it sounds like they're a bit mobile as well.

Arwa, because of the heavy fighting, many civilians have been forced to flee Ajdabiya. And you went to see some of the refugees who have been able to find shelter. I want to play a little bit of what you saw today.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's bitterly cold here at night, and these shelters offer very little protection. This one is just made up of branches and shrubs that have been lashed together. And no one here knows how much longer they're going to have to live like this.


GUPTA: Just unbelievably harsh living conditions for those people, Arwa. I mean, what are they telling you they saw there?

DAMON: Yes, Sanjay, it's harsh living conditions, and it's a very harsh battleground that they came out of. We were talking to the father of a little 12-year-old boy. And while he was telling us about how they had drive out with tank rounds raining down around them, artillery falling, his son standing next to him began to cry, and he was trying to hide this.

He cradled his head in his arms. He didn't want us to see his tears. His father said that it was becoming typical behavior for him. He was just unable to control his emotions and psychological impact that all have been having on him. This particular family also telling us about running street battles.

Another young man who we spoke to was talking about how five of his neighbors, young men themselves, were taken out of their homes forcibly by Gadhafi's forces. A number of people were telling us how Gadhafi's troops deployed up and down the streets calling on civilians to come out, insisting that it was safe, and then firing on them when they tried to leave their homes. It's a very disturbing stories coming out of Ajdabiya -- Sanjay.

GUPTA: All right, it sounds -- it's just awful to watch.

I mean, Arwa -- I mean, what is -- and you can see from the images there, but what is morale overall you know, I mean, from the people you have been talking to? Do they have any confidence that Gadhafi and his forces can be defeated?

DAMON: Yes. Sanjay, they're living out there. There's very little water; there is no electricity. The conditions are visibly very difficult. They're relying on handouts that are being brought down by volunteers from Benghazi.

And yet all of these families who we met are refusing to leave for one simple reason. And that is because every single night when they go to sleep by their fires, they wake up believing the next morning that somehow the opposition will have defeated Gadhafi's forces, that Ajdabiya is going to be safe, and that they will be able to go back home.

You see the children running around. They're still flashing the victory sign. They are still laughing. The parents, the adults seeming much more subdued, huddled underneath their blankets, but they too confident that at the end of the day the opposition is going to win this, simply because they have to.

GUPTA: Nic, along those lines, I mean, we're hearing that Gadhafi is arming volunteers to fight. Have you seen any evidence of that? Does that seem to be true to you?

ROBERTSON: It does to a degree. He seems to be arming members of tribes that are loyal to him. There's one particular tribe that is -- makes up a lot of the -- a lot of the armed forces here. They have been armed in certain areas.

And what we understand from government officials is, if the army lines break or the army's resolve breaks or it isn't able to hold the front line, or the rebels try to push through, then -- then all these armed tribal members, and we're talking about tens, possibly hundreds of thousands, would then be put into the battle or go into the battle on Gadhafi's side.

So, what we're hearing him do and what we see some evidence of him doing could have a significant impact later on if the fighting escalates, if it comes closer towards the capital in some of these areas where the tribes have been armed -- Sanjay.

GUPTA: Nic, can you give any sense, you know, at week's end now, are Gadhafi or his troops any closer to relinquishing power? Is it a stalemate? Does one side or the other have an advantage here?

ROBERTSON: It seems in the town of Misrata that at least the coalition bombing campaign there has had an impact on Gadhafi's forces and the fighting isn't as intense as it -- as how opposition members reported it at the beginning of the week.

But it does seem that Ajdabiya in the east is a red line for -- for Gadhafi's government. There, he's not prepared to pull out of this important strategic oil and gas city. So, it does seem that his forces remain dug in, continue to repel the rebels who are trying to get back into the city.

What's happening to the supply lines? We definitely see that the command-and-control is being attacked. His ability to defend other parts of the country is being attacked. Coalition commanders say they will go after the supply lines. Can he resupply them in a less obvious way?

That's clearly going to be the test of the coming days, but so far we're not seeing that resolve weaken, as best we can tell -- Sanjay.

GUPTA: All right, Nic Robertson, Arwa Damon, thank you both. Be safe out there.

And coming up, imminent change in command for the mission in Libya and a lot of questions to sort out; with NATO taking over, will the mission be any different? And what is the possible endgame? That's next.

And later, got some ominous news from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant in Japan; there's word that the core at Reactor Three may be leaking radioactive material. That means a containment vessel could be cracked. That containment vessel, that's what stands between the nuclear core and a large-scale release of radiation. We're going to have much more on that coming up. Stay with us.


GUPTA: Word today from the top commander of the U.S. operation in Libya that NATO will take over the mission. General Carter Ham said the transition of the no-fly zone will happen this weekend, and NATO has agreed in principle to also take command of the broader mission of protecting Libyans -- Libyan civilians.

So, what's that transition really going to mean?

Well, joining us live from Brussels, international security correspondent Paula Newton; in Tripoli, "New York Times" Cairo bureau chief, David Kirkpatrick; and in Los Angeles, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Wesley Clark.

Thanks, all of you, for joining us.

Paula, let me start with you. The -- the coalition has leveled this huge bombing campaign against the Libyan regime, and yet Moammar Gadhafi remains in power. What does that mean for NATO, now that it's taking over the mission? Is there going to be a change do you think sort of in -- in the overall character?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Sanjay, this mission will change because it has to.

They have given it a week. I know a week may not seem like a long time, but they have hit the obvious targets. It's important to go back to what happened in Paris a week ago -- less than a week ago, Sanjay. It's hard to believe. And I know from people in that room, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that the feeling around the table was that, look, if we hit him hard the first few days, the quote from everyone around that table was, "He won't last long."

He's already lasted too long as far as some members of the -- some members of the coalition are concerned.

NATO takes over, what does that mean? It means on the ground, this mission will change. NATO is a completely different structure. There is no way that the airstrikes will be able to be as nimble. And also to what end? I think around the table, many are asking themselves, saying, look, we have given it our best shot. At this point, we have to try something else.

GUPTA: Well, let's stay on theme with that, David. I mean, endgame strategies, I mean, you wrote today in "The New York Times" most allies expected the military force would lead to talks between Gadhafi and the rebels. I mean, what are you hearing about a possible endgame or exit strategy? Is a negotiated settlement even possible now?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I don't think personally that's very likely.

I don't see the Gadhafi regime very warm to meaningful talks with the rebels. And I think that the rebels believe that if Gadhafi is in power, they're dead and (INAUDIBLE) about that. I don't think they perceive a scenario where Gadhafi remains in power and most of them continue to live.

So I don't think there's going to be much talk on that front. And I think that the Gadhafi family is so interwoven in the fabric of government here, it's not that feasible for -- for Gadhafi and his seven sons to just climb on a plane and go.

GUPTA: General Clark, I mean, you just heard what Paula Newton was saying about the character of the NATO mission changing. I mean, do you think the -- do you expect the NATO-led mission will differ from the coalition mission thus far?

GEN WESLEY CLARK, FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: I don't think it will be much different.

Now, the U.S. did the playbook strike against the integrated air defense system with all the Tomahawk missiles and the jamming and the stealth bombers and so the high-altitude air defense has been taken out. As we saw in the photos shown by Nic Robertson, there's still some other air defenses there camouflaged.

It's tougher to see. It's still a threat. And -- and there are also targets on the ground driving around out there that are still a threat and -- and can be dealt with.

My guess is that, from the outside, the NATO operation won't look much different than what we had let's say today. There will be aircraft flying overhead. There will be maybe 100, 200 sorties. There will be a half-dozen armored vehicles taken out and the rebels on the ground will be struggling.

GUPTA: All right. General Wesley Clark, David Kirkpatrick, Paula Newton, thanks to all of you so much for joining us. I appreciate it.

And still ahead, the situation grows worse in Syria, deadly clashes between government protesters and security forces. We have reports of dozens killed, including children.

And in Japan, a potentially catastrophic development at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant; we've got several details on that straight ahead.


GUPTA: Government protesters in Syria running for their lives today, quite literally, as security forces opened fire on them in the city of Sanamain.

And this is what the scene looked like a short time later, the injured being carried away by fellow protesters.

Parts of the Mideast exploded in violence today, including Jordan. And there was a giant protest in Yemen.

We're going to focus on those countries in just a moment; but first Syria, where anti-government protests have been growing all week in the southern city of Daraa. And today they spread across the country. Thousands gathered again in Daraa, calling for reforms to President Bashar Assad's autocratic government. Witnesses report that government snipers fired on the protesters from rooftops, killing some in the crowd, although CNN cannot independently verify those reports.

But a United Nations official said that -- that at least 37 people were killed there this week. And some protesters in Daraa did what in the past would have been unthinkable; they ripped down a giant poster of President Assad.

In the city of Latakia, witnesses said a teenager was killed by security forces who fired tear gas to disperse crowds of protesters. And they also used water cannons to break up the demonstrations.

Earlier tonight, I spoke by phone to Wissam Tarif. He's a human rights activist in Syria who was brave not only to speak to CNN, but he insists that we use his full name, which could get him killed. Again we cannot independently confirm what he told us because CNN has repeatedly been denied entry into Syria. But here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) GUPTA: Wissam, let me start off by asking you, what was the situation today on the ground?

WISSAM TARIF, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, INSAN (via telephone): Well, today, we have witnessed demonstrations all over Syria. We have seen new demos in Damascus and in the (INAUDIBLE) mosque, the big demo that started after the prayers as well in Duma. All over Syria, we have been witnessing demonstrations against or demanding reform in the country and more freedom and liberty.

GUPTA: Let me -- let me be real specific here, because we're hearing from the U.N., they say nearly 40 people have been killed this past week. First of all, are -- are those numbers, you -- you believe and -- or do you think the number is even higher than that?

TARIF: Oh, definitely the numbers are higher than that.

Today in -- in Daraa, in Sanamain, a small town just beside Daraa, there were -- we have confirmed 50 names who were killed there. I think there is much more injured people who were sent to hospitals, which I believe we're not able to access them. The medical personnel do not have the liberty to talk with the families. They are escorted by security people.

The situation in Daraa is really, really worrying, and brutal force has been used against demonstrations. As we speak, as a matter of fact, Duma, an area in Damascus where the uprising started after the prayers have continued until now and still on, has been cut off of electricity. There is no electricity there now, and security forces attacking the city or at least part of the city as we speak.

GUPTA: Yes I mean, yesterday, government officials said President Assad ordered security forces not to fire, not to fire real bullets. But then he came and said that mistakes do happen. And that was -- that was what we heard he said.

What -- what do you make of that; do you buy that?

TARIF: Well, it's basically what they are saying. It's either President Assad does not -- around the country does not have control of the security forces, or President Assad ordered what is happening in Syria. It's either/or.

In both cases, President Assad has a problem, that he has to deal with it, and he has to deal with it now. They have to -- to -- to seriously start -- if they really intend to build and to reform they have to start building trust with the people of Syria. They have to walk their talk.

Enough -- enough promises; enough we will do this, we will do that. People are being slaughtered.

This can be peaceful. Reform can happen peacefully. The price does not have to be blood at all in Syria. But the regime is -- the regime holds the weapons, not the protesters. It's amazing what they are doing. It's -- it's absurd. GUPTA: You mean the government has said that it will address a number of the protesters' demands by forming a committee to listen to their concerns. And that seems to be their -- their -- their line. I mean, what is the reaction to that from the government on the ground?

TARIF: Well, people don't buy it, no one buys it. This is not the way a country can make reforms. This is what -- the first step to do is to release -- to release prisoners of conscience from jail. Start a national debate, have a serious talk with everyone.

Until now, no one has asked the President Assad to leave. There were some voices from outside of the country that said that, from our opposition in exile. But as a matter of fact, I haven't heard that from anyone inside Syria. Everyone is asking for serious reform, serious steps, a -- a real dialogue.

Well, I think I would say President Assad can do this. The question is: does he want to do that or not?

GUPTA: So should -- should he go? I mean, I know Wednesday you said that wasn't what they were asking for. And you just said that again. But now over the last couple of days, has that sort of reaction toward him as president, has that shifted?

TARIF: Well, with every person, with every one more casualty, people are becoming -- there's more anger in the streets. If you just look at Facebook, at Twitter, people -- people are not afraid anymore. They -- they are not afraid. They know that they can do it. They know that they want democracy. People want to be free. Want -- people want to be -- to take part in -- in public life. And they want to be engaged.

Now, President Assad still has the chance to do that. I believe that he can still do this, but he can't continue just running public relations campaigns.

GUPTA: I know you -- you -- you're obviously talking about this. We're using your name. I mean how -- how dangerous is this for you to be talking about it? I mean are -- are you safe?

TARIF: Of course, there is an element of risk. But this is a country that is uprising. This is a country that is now changing and everyone wants to be part of it. And everyone is proud of it.

And personally, I feel like, well, I'm lucky that I'm living this period of time that the Arab world is changing. We are standing up and saying, "Enough is enough. We want change. We want democracy." We are decent people. Enough saying that the Muslim brothers, the radical movement, when they created them, they -- they created radicalism. They created radicalism and terrorism by oppressing people and putting people in poverty.

We want to change. We want a better way of life.

GUPTA: Wissam Tarif thanks for joining us. Thanks for talking to us. Please be safe out there. TARIF: Thank you, sir. Thank you.


GUPTA: Incredibly historic video we're all looking at right now, and it doesn't stop there. On to other unrest in the region:

There was a violent clash in Amman, Jordan, today between supporters of King Abdullah's government and protesters demanding political reform.

Now, witnesses said police tried to separate the two groups and appeared overwhelmed before then regaining control. The government reports that more than 100 people were injured.

And in Yemen, thousands took to the streets in the southern city of Taizz (ph) after Friday prayers to call for government reform.

The protests in Yemen have been going on for weeks, but the unrest in Jordan and Syria is new and shows that the demand for reform across the Mideast continues to spread.

Now, joining us now, Fouad Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, he's also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution; and in Cairo, CNN's Ivan Watson.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Fouad, you've been talking about this. You say that in Syria, like in Libya, the push for democracy is not going to come easily or without a fierce fight.

PROF. FOUAD AJAMI, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Well, Sanjay, I think in many ways, if you take a look at Syria, it more resembles Libya in the way this outcome and this battle will be fought between the regime and the opposition, between the regime and the people than it would resemble Tunisia and Egypt.

Tunisia and Egypt fooled us; they were easy. They were -- in many ways, they were done in a fairly gentlemanly way between the regime and the -- and the opposition.

Syria is a very different country. It's a more violent regime. It's a regime that's cut off from the people. And I think what -- what you're witnessing in all these places that we're talking about tonight is what your colleague, our -- the anchor of this show, when he came back from Egypt, the theme was "fear has been defeated."

It's about these people in Syria finding their courage, remarkably enough, after 40 years of tyranny by Hafez Assad and now his son, Bashar. Forty years is a long time.

GUPTA: Let me ask you something about that, Fouad. We're going to talk about Egypt and Tunisia in a second with Ivan. But as events in Syria continue to play out, how significant is it that it's a majority Sunni Muslim nation being ruled by those who belong to a small and rather obscure Shia sect? I mean, could this turn into a sectarian civil war, and is that what this may be about in other countries, as well, more of a sectarian war rather than, you know, a desire for these reforms?

AJAMI: Well, I think that's a very good question. I think fundamentally it will become a sectarian war when the regime, if you will runs out of options.

At the end of the day, at the end of this contest, if Bashar Assad doesn't want to talk about reform, if he doesn't want to change the economy, if he doesn't want to take his cousins and his in-laws out of the plunder of the country, he will fall back on this fight between an Alawi (ph) minority and -- and a Sunni majority. This will be a betrayal of all the hopes that the Syrians have brought to this issue.

GUPTA: And it could be a very bloody war, as well.

But let me pull off with Ivan on something you said. Egypt, which had a more euphoric end to its revolution just six weeks ago, Ivan, you say there are some alarming signs of abuse from authorities.

In fact, you spoke to a woman today, I believe, that you said was forced to undergo a virginity test; and spoke to men who were electrocuted and beaten. This is in Egypt we're talking about here. How difficult is it going to be for Egypt to shed this identity of it as a security state?

IVAN WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It seems like the old tactics of oppression and brutality die hard because I'm hearing about a pattern from activists and protestors here of real brutal methods, sinister methods being used by the army that is out on the streets of the Egyptian capital.

Just this morning, Sanjay, I talked to two men who had been dragged in by Egyptian soldiers into the headquarters of Egyptian state TV while they were participating in a small protest there. They were held down and beaten and electrocuted in their groins. They showed me the bruises on their wrists, on their faces, cuts on their head.

And I spoke with one woman, as well, a 20-year-old hairdresser who was detained, along with more than 100 others, on March 9.

According to Amnesty International, at least 17 women were detained in Egypt's famous Tahrir Square and taken to a military detainment center. Some of them, including this woman, were subjected to forced virginity tests upon threat of electrocution from Egyptian soldiers.

These are stunning allegations of human rights abuses that the spokesmen for the military and for Egypt's ruling military council are denying -- Sanjay.

GUPTA: It's hard to hear. And Fouad, I mean, I know it's not been that much time, obviously, since -- since, you know, the revolution in Egypt. But does this surprise you, what Ivan is saying, first of all? And what do you think the biggest challenges are going to be as Egypt attempts this transition to democracy?

AJAMI: Well, I think Ivan himself had a wonderful way of putting it, when he said old habits of autocracy, old habits of tyranny die hard.

You have a regime in Egypt, this military regime, which has been in power since 1952. For six decades Egypt was ruled in a very authoritarian way. It had a rich democratic heritage, but that was before 1952.

I think the Egyptians have the best chance, if you will, in the Arab world as a whole for making that transition to a democratic future. It's a culture with deep tradition. It has a legal framework.

And I think we saw the best of Egypt in Medan Tahrir. We will see some deviations from that. Men are not angels. But on balance, I still vote for the Egyptian revolution, that it will bring -- it will bring the Egyptians a measure of relief and a measure of progress.

GUPTA: And then that brings us straight to Tunisia, I think. Ivan, I mean, despite the situations you're reporting in Egypt, you just seem to draw a different sort of comparison in Tunisia, I mean, the other post-revolution country here. Are things different? Again, it hasn't been that long in the scheme of things, but what are you seeing in Tunisia?

WATSON: I just traveled from there a couple days ago, Sanjay. And there, the revolutionary process seems much more benign.

We've had this democratic ferment, this explosion of political parties; more than 30 have been registered and allowed to operate since the dictator there was overthrown.

You have these spontaneous debates breaking out in the main thoroughfare of the capital, Tunis. And unlike here, where plain- clothed cops are still grabbing people off the streets and, in some cases, torturing them here in Cairo, there, activists and ordinary citizens say there are no signs of the infamous -- what was called the political police. They really do seem to have come off the streets, the secret police, and people are not dealing with them.

Now, one concern, though, is what triggered the uprising in Tunisia, which then launched this inspiration across the Arab world that we're still seeing, most recently now in Jordan and Syria, was unemployment, rampant unemployment. No hope for jobs for Tunisians. And they're still fleeing Tunisia by the thousands to southern Europe, on boats, on dangerous journeys, to become illegal immigrants in search of better jobs, even after the revolution.

That big problem of unemployment and economic hopelessness persists, and it may even be worse, because Tunisia's tourism sector, which is a big part of that economy, has taken a huge hit over the course of the past couple of months. That's something the new post- revolutionary government is really going to have to deal with.

Professor Ajami, thank you so much.

And of course, Ivan Watson in Cairo tonight, thank you.

Still ahead now, the death toll in Japan soars to more than 10,000, a number sure to climb as rescuers continue to search through all that devastation.

And there's also new radiation fears, authorities say one of the reactors at the crippled nuclear power plant could be leaking from its core. We'll explain that in just a moment.


GUPTA: Breaking news out of Japan. Just moments ago, the operator of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant revealed this: tests have found radioactive iodine 1,250 times above the legal limit off the coast in the Pacific Ocean.

Meantime, a separate, potentially catastrophic development; authorities now fear a core breach in a containment vessel. Now, a possible leak was discovered after three workers at the Number Three Reactor stepped into a puddle of radioactive water and were subsequently hospitalized. That water was later found to have 10,000 times the amount of radiation typical for the plant.

Worst case: a core breach could lead to a large-scale release of radiation into the atmosphere, something we have been talking about for some time.

And to help us sort through these troubling new developments, let's bring in CNN contributor Jim Walsh, he's also from MIT; and Michael Friedlander, a former nuclear plant operator. Thanks for joining us.

Jim, let me start with you. You just heard those numbers, 1,250 times the level off the coast there in the Pacific Ocean. It's been high in the past, up to 120 times higher. But 1,200 times higher. What do you make of that?

JIM WALSH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it's not good. You're right, Sanjay that we've had reports in the last 24 hours, even prior to this one, that the levels were high in the ocean right around the plant. But, you know, in relative terms, it is better that that radiation be in the ocean than be on land or blowing west over population centers.

So do we want excess radiation in the sea? No, we don't. But if you had to choose, you would choose it to go out to sea, where it will dissipate over time -- and the oceans are big -- and dissipate over time, than blowing back on Japan. So not good, but you know, better than the alternative.

GUPTA: Just really quick, Jim. These radioactive particles, the ground between the plants and the ocean, given that the ocean is 1,200 times higher than normal, what about that ground in between? What assumptions can we make there?

WALSH: Well, I think we're going to have to wait and see. First of all, there's the question of what is the composition of that radiation? In other words, which isotopes? You know, iodine lasts -- you know, a half life of eight days. Cesium lasts longer. Other isotopes will last longer than that. So you really -- I know there's a tendency to think radiation, all bad, all equally the same. You know and I know that that's not the case. It depends on the particular nature of it and how long it will last, the duration that it's exposed. But the more it is not exposed to humans, the better.

So if it is out in the ocean, that's definitely better than being in the land where it can be absorbed into ground water. It can be absorbed into vegetables. It can be exposed to human beings. So again, do you want this to happen? No. But better -- better out there than on land.

GUPTA: Michael, some of the other big news today. There are these containment structures around the core. And the concern seems to be that one of the -- there's a breach of the containment structure, allowing radioactive material from the core to leak out.

It could have happened as early as when the hydrogen explosions that we heard about a week ago were occurring. But what does this mean to you? Does this make it more likely that it's going to be difficult to bring this situation under control?


No. 1, we have a relatively high degree of certainty now, given the events of the last couple of weeks, that the reactor fuel pins themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, have been compromised. Now, we don't know exactly the nature, but we know that much of the radioactive iodine, as Jim Walsh was just mentioning, and the radioactive cesium indeed has come from those fuel pins that were breached over the events of the last two weeks.

But more importantly, and I think this is a really important point, we know the Nuclear Industry Safety Agency of the Japanese government yesterday put out a very well-written document that gave us some very precise information regarding the water that those guys stepped in.

Now, the nice thing about nuclear materials are -- is that each individual component has a very distinctive fingerprint. And it allows us to go back and identify the source of that radioactive water.

And indeed, the information that the NISA put out yesterday, that radioactive water did not come from containment. It most likely came from one of the auxiliary systems that's in the turbine building that's used during normal plant operations. So it was probably damaged during the earthquake.

GUPTA: So I guess that's potentially a little bit of good news there.

But Michael, let me ask you. I was reading that there were three workers that stepped in this water. This is almost going to sound a little silly, but one of the guys had higher boots and, therefore, the water did not seep into his boots. The other two guy's boots were lower. I mean, I would assume that the type of protective gear that they're wearing would be a lot more complete and consistent than that. That almost sounds a little bit ridiculous. I mean, hearing it, how could that happen?

FRIEDLANDER: Yes, you know what? This is, for me, one of the -- besides the issue of the radioactive contamination working into the food chain, the No. 1 concern that I have with regard to how this whole incident is playing out is exactly these type of topics in terms of the overall management of the crisis and the decisions that are being made.

Moments ago, the NHK news agency, which is the English-speaking news agency in Japan, put out a -- put out a release that basically said that they were scolding -- that the NISA was scolding TEPCO specifically because they had improperly done radiological surveys in this area before sending people to work.

So I take that. I take the report that you just mentioned, where some of the individuals were, indeed, not properly protected, and it causes me to have a bit of concern with regard to how the overall very, very difficult issues are being managed.

And don't forget: we're getting ready to move into an evolution where we are about to start taking large quantities of very radioactive water and moving them outside containment. I'm worried about this.

GUPTA: It is unbelievable, I think to a lot of people. Jim -- Jim, did you have something to add to that?

WALSH: No. I agree with Michael. You know, it's -- we continue to face -- the workers continue to face the greatest risks. Right? They're the ones who are on the front line of most of the radiation that's going to be in that area immediately around the plant. Yes, it will flow elsewhere. Not to the U.S. in ways that are significant; I want to underline that. It's always good to say that.

But, you know, it's the people in the immediate area who face the greatest risk. And it's inconceivable to me that they would be - the workers would be put at risk, because they have inadequate equipment. I -- I'm just stunned by that.

GUPTA: I'm stunned, as well. We've been talking about these workers for a couple weeks now. They are the ones who are on the front line, really trying to protect us from all that radiation. We'll certainly keep a close eye on what's happening over there.

Jim Walsh, Michael Friedlander, thank you both so much.

And up next, a 360 follow. A judge rules whether a mother with severe brain damage, whether or not she can see her triplets who are now 4 years old. Her ex-husband said any visits could potentially harm the children. We'll explain that and we'll tell you what the judge said.


GUPTA: All right. Let's check the latest on some other news we've been following. Isha Sesay joins us with a "360 News & Business Bulletin" -- Isha.

ISHA SESAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Sanjay, an update tonight on a story I know you've been following closely. A severely brain-damaged mother has won the right to see her children. A California judge today ordered that Abbie Dorn be allowed annual visits, dismissing her ex-husband's concern that seeing their mother would be harmful to the kids. Dorn suffered brain damage after giving birth to triplets in 2006.

The FAA today ordered a nationwide review of the air traffic control system. This, after a controller in Washington admitted to sleeping on the job. Two planes were forced to land without clearance at Reagan National Airport Wednesday when the controller failed to respond. Well, the controller, seen driving away here, was later suspended.

On Wall Street, stocks rose for a third straight day today; the Dow added 50 points higher. The NASDAQ gained more than six points, and the S&P ended four points higher.

And Sanjay, Baby Jessica turns 25 tomorrow. The toddler who tumbled down the well in Midland, Texas is now Jessica McClure Morales, a stay-at-home mother of two.

And how's this for a birthday gift, Sanjay? Jessica will now have access to a trust fund of up to $800,000 donated two decades ago. The money comes from thousands of strangers who stayed glued to their TVs as rescuers struggled to free her.

GUPTA: Good for her.

SESAY: No word of a party, but I'm sure -- yes. I was going to say, no word of a party, but I'm sure she's going to party hard.

GUPTA: That's right. Hopefully, we'll get invited.

Now a programming note this weekend: CNN brings you a special report, "UNWELCOME, THE MUSLIMS NEXT DOOR." Soledad O'Brien takes you to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It's a city with just over 10,000 people, more than 140 churches and just one mosque. For decades, Muslims have lived and prayed there with no incident, but that all changed last May when a Muslim community got approval for a new Islamic center.

Here's a preview.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Construction was barely under way when members of the congregation received disturbing news. A fire in the middle of the night had damaged equipment at the construction site.

SALEH SBENATY, BOARD MEMBER, ISLAMIC CENTER OF MURFREESBORO: You know, tears started to come down, you know. It's why? What did we do?

O'BRIEN: A day later, leaders of the congregation came to assess the damage.

ESSAM FATHY, BOARD MEMBER, ISLAMIC CENTER OF MURFREESBORO: It's a natural growth to our community. I mean we're growing.

O'BRIEN: Our interview was interrupted by gunfire.

FATHY: Pardon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There're some shots fired.

FATHY: Yes. You hear that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Police Department.

SAFAA FATHY, ISLAMIC CENTER OF MURFREESBORO: We're standing here, I don't know.

FATHY: I'm scared. That's what they're trying to do. It's a terrorist act.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I heard very loud shots from this way. You want me to go out there and check for you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, yes. I mean --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It could very well be hunter. We're going to check it out. We got plenty of guys in the area.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we'll make sure that we document at least your concerns so you'll have something to show as we're looking into it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you so much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're grateful.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, sir.



GUPTA: Does freedom of religion mean freedom from suspicion? CNN's Soledad O'Brien chronicles the dramatic fight over the construction of a Mosque in the heart of the Bible Belt, "UNWELCOME: THE MUSLIMS NEXT DOOR." It airs this Sunday on CNN 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

And up next, meet a five-star chef bringing meals to some unlikely customers.


GUPTA: Most cities have them, cheap motels inhabited by drug dealers and prostitutes. But you may not realize they're also often home to children and their families who are struggling to stay one step ahead of homelessness. When a chef in Anaheim, California learned just how many motel kids often go hungry, he began serving up a solution one plate at a time.

Here's this week's CNN Hero, Bruno Serato.


BRUNO SERATO, CNN HERO OF THE WEEK: I came to this country 30 years ago. I love to cook but to be in the restaurant business, you must love the people.

How's your lunch ladies.


SERATO: In 2005, my mom was in the kitchen from Italy. I said, Mom, let's go to the Boys and Girls Club. There was a little boy 5 years boy eating potato chips for his dinner. He was a motel kid.

I find that a poor family has nothing else, you live in a motel.

The motel environment is extremely bad: drugs, prostitution, alcoholics. It's horrible. When they go back after school, there's no dinner, there's no money. My mom said, Bruno, you must feed them the pasta.

I'm Bruno Serato, I listened to my momma. Now my mission is feeding hungry children.

Six years ago, we start feeding the kids. When the recession came, customers dropped and the children doubled. Oh, mama mia.

I don't give the kids leftovers. I prepare fresh pasta.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bruno brings a tray and all the kids are expecting it and excited.

SERATO: Are you hungry, are you hungry?

Right now we are between 150 to 200 kids every week.

Who likes pasta?

My mom, she made me start. Now I could never stop.

I'll see you soon.

They're customers, my favorite customers.


GUPTA: And Chef Bruno Serato served more than 270,000 dinners to date.

Remember every one of this year's CNN heroes are chosen from people you tell us about. So to nominate someone you know who is making a big difference in your community, go to

Well, that does it for this edition of 360. Thanks for watching.

"PIERS MORGAN" starts right now.