Read below about Eric’s GLOBE journey in Japan!
Japan’s Mountainous Lands from on top of Mount Fuji – the tallest peak in Japan
My name is Eric He and I am from Toronto, Canada. I am a Junior studying Nuclear Engineering in the College of Engineering. My club involvement includes American Nuclear Society, Tau Beta Pi Honor Society, Engineering Student Council, Berkeley Mentorship Cohort, Campus Ambassadors, Cal Triathlon, and the E98 Decal teaching team. In my free time, I enjoy running and cycling. In Winter 2023, I was a GLOBE Ambassador in Saudi Arabia. This summer, I received the GLOBE Discovery Scholarship during my research internship in Japan at the University of Tokyo.
Introduction – Navigating Japan’s Energy Landscape
Japan is a country where century-old traditions harmonize with the forefront of modern technology. However, due to the lush mountainous landscapes, Japan finds itself in a unique situation where it has a scarcity of natural resources, such as natural gas and oil. In order to limit its dependence on importing energy, Japan has been working to research and develop energy alternatives. One of these heavily invested options is nuclear power. “Up until 2011, Japan was generating some 30% of electricity from its reactors and this was expected to increase to at least 40% by 2017” (World Nuclear Association, 2023). However currently, nuclear energy only accounts for less than 7% of Japan’s energy supply, due to a recent anti-nuclear sentiment from Japanese citizens.
This summer, during my internship at the University of Tokyo, I sought to better understand the potential of nuclear fusion for a sustainable energy future and to delve into the nuanced perspectives of the Japanese people on this powerful yet controversial source of power. To capture a sense of the opinions of nuclear power from the Japanese public and experts in the field, I gathered first hand data at many professional institutions. This included visiting the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, conducting interviews while working on the TS-6 Fusion Reactor, and culminating with a tour of the JT-60SA Fusion Experiment.
Fukushima Daiichi – A Glimpse in the Past
Fukushima is a city where time seems to stand still, among the remnants of what was once a bustling community at the forefront of nuclear technology. On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake created a tsunami that caused a severe nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. To this date, it is still only one of two accidents that is classified as a rank seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
Our group from the University of Tokyo was exceptionally fortunate to be able to tour the power plant, as the Fukushima Prefectural Government had only recently deemed it to be safe for members of the public to visit the area. On the morning of June 28 as we arrived at the power plant, we felt the weight of its history fall on us, as a reminder of the events that had forever altered the course of this once-thriving community. We were guided to a viewing platform that faced the three reactor units that were damaged from the explosions. The sheer scale of damage was staggering, which was a testament to the potential power of nuclear technology. Yet, the true magnitude of the challenge ahead became even more apparent as our guide shared insights into the decommissioning effort. According to our guide, decommissioning the power plant is likely to take 30-40 years to complete, with a total cost of 25 million dollars. During the session, I asked an employee about how Fukushima has affected the public perception of nuclear power. The response I received was expected, but regrettable, “It’s safe to say that a significant portion of Japan’s population remains skeptical about nuclear power, due to the lasting impression of Fukushima”. However, amidst the complexities and challenges, substantial investments have been directed towards fortifying the safety of nuclear power plants. Moreover, the nation has been steadily revitalizing its nuclear industry to regain trust among its citizens. As I reflect on my experiences, this trip was incredibly valuable to witness firsthand the concerted efforts being undertaken to ensure a safer, more sustainable future.
JT-60SA Project Tour – Bridging the Future
On July 12, I visited JT-60SA which is the largest fusion experiment in the country and an international collaboration between Japan and the European Union. Nuclear fusion is different from the energy produced by traditional reactors, as it involves merging light atomic nuclei to release energy, replicating the same process that powers the sun. It is important to note that fusion doesn’t produce the long-lived radioactive waste associated with fission, making it inherently less dangerous. The significant challenge with fusion development lies in overcoming the force that exists between fusing two positively charged atomic nuclei. JT-60SA is the heart of fusion innovation, and is one of the most promising projects to achieve a working reactor. Their goal to achieve this milestone by 2050 far exceeded my expectations, and served as a reminder of the pressing urgency behind this ambitious endeavor. Fusion is the most promising candidate for future energy sources because the fuel is abundant, it is safe, and does not emit greenhouse gasses. Out of the options that Japan has abundantly available, the development of nuclear fusion comes out as the best candidate for decarbonization.
Touring the facility and witnessing the intricacy of cutting-edge technology becoming a reality was fascinating. Seeing the convergence of so many brilliant minds working on this project gives me hope that this technology can become mainstream within my lifetime. This experience stood as a parallel to my summer work at the University of Tokyo, offering me a clearer understanding of the collaborative endeavors required to actualize the fusion dream. Most importantly, it showed that a future of greener, more sustainable energy is just around the corner.
Conclusion – The Evolving Japanese Perspectives on Nuclear Energy
Reflecting on my journey through Japanese nuclear technology reveals a multifaceted relationship between a nation, its people, and energy. Despite many recent advancements in the field, an apprehension still lingers among the Japanese people when it comes to nuclear technology. The memories of the Fukushima 2011 tragedy continue to cast a somber shadow, reminding us that rebuilding trust takes time and the persistent dedication to transparent communication and uncompromising safety standards is crucial. However, more importantly than ever, there is a growing support for nuclear technology, influenced by concerns for climate change and energy security. Considering that many members of the public tried to lobby to phase out nuclear technology after 2011, nuclear energy in Japan is on the surge. The government is recommitting to the technology, by setting a goal for nuclear power to make up 22% of the country’s energy by 2030. Equally as importantly, Japan is also one of the leaders in introducing minorities into STEM. They are adamantly working to “resolve issues related to gender imbalance in STEM careers to try and improve the participation of women in the nuclear sector” (Nuclear Energy Agency, 2023).
Another example of the bright prospects of energy in Japan is nuclear fusion. Projects such as JT-60SA signifies a nation’s unwavering commitment to make incredible advancements to nuclear technology, while still having a large consideration for safety. With each experimental reactor, each collaborative effort, each dollar of investment in this field, the vision of a future with clean energy becomes more apparent. I believe that we are at a crossroads in history where nuclear technology is becoming more widely accepted by the public. Japan is crucial to lead the charge towards a global future energized by sustainable energy sources.