So bored has Australia’s media become with the impact of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and their impact on the Fukushima nuclear power station that a major development seems to have been missed overnight.

According to Japanese media reports on Thursday night, there seems to have been a partial or substantial meltdown of the fuel rods in the No.1 reactor at Fukushima.

This news emerged yesterday as Tokyo Electric Power Co released successive statements describing what technicians had found when they started examining and correcting gauges and other monitoring equipment at the reactor.

NHK, the Japanese TV broadcaster owned by the government, reported on its English website last night:

“Tokyo Electric Power Company says the No.1 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is believed to be in a state of “meltdown”.

“The utility company said on Thursday that most of the fuel rods are likely to have melted and fallen to the bottom of the reactor. Earlier in the day, it found that the coolant water in the reactor is at a level which would completely expose nuclear fuel rods if they were in their normal position.

“The company believes the melted fuel has cooled down, judging from the reactor’s surface temperature.”

So its back to square one at reactor No.1. Tepco might have to cover the whole thing with lead and concrete, but what about the ground under the reactor?

This news was somehow missed in reports in Australia today of the earlier leaks found by Tepco and by reports that radioactive substances exceeding the legal limit has been detected in pasture grass and vegetables in Tochigi and Ibaraki prefectures, neighboring Fukushima Prefecture (and closer to Tokyo). ABC AM mentioned the partial meltdown in a report at the end of the program this morning.

Also missed news that the Japanese government, fresh from botching completely the evacuation of people from around Fukushima, has now ordered the prefectural government to organise the destruction of all animals inside the exclusion zone for fear they may be radioactive.

This act of bastardry from a government that forgot to allow farmers and families to take animals or make arrangements for their most prized assets to be moved to safety, so panicked were they after March 11.

Earlier this week the Japanese Prime Minister, Naota Kan confirmed that the government had abandoned the June, 2010 Strategic Energy and Growth plan that called for the greater reliance on nuclear power by 2030. By then nuclear power was supposed to be providing half Japan’s energy needs a year. That won’t change from the current 20% or so,  depending on how many reactors currently operating, are forced to close for safety reasons.

Three reactors at the five reactor plant of Chubu Electric at its Hamaoka plant, south of Tokyo, are being shut down for safety reasons, or until the company can improve safety at the plant that is considered the most vulnerable in Japan to damage in a major quake. It sits on a subduction zone, and has no sea wall or defences high enough to protect it against a major tsunami.

Work started yesterday on shutting down the reactors and placing them in suspension. It means that 14 of Japan’s 54 reactors are currently closed (such as all six at Fukushima), closing, like the Chubu trio, or closed and being inspected or about to be inspected for safety reasons.

But by the end of this month that figure will rise to 35, or about two-thirds, of Japan’s commercial reactors will have been shut down by the end of May. And another five will have to shut from June onwards through summer for regular safety inspections.

That means that if the power companies keep these 40 reactors offline for the time being, Japan will have about 75% of its reactors shutdown this (northern) summer.

No wonder the government and business are very nervous about the economy and employment over the summer when in and around Tokyo alone there will be a 15% (minimum) shortfall in electricity supplies.

Peter Fray

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