by Eric He
This summer while attending UTSIP, 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
This year, our UTSIP field trip was to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. 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 UTSIP 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. 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. 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.
Measurements in the TS-6 Tokamak – Advancing Fusion Energy
The project I worked on during UTSIP gave me the unique opportunity to work with a nuclear fusion reactor called the TS-6 tokamak. My specific focus was on utilizing the scattering of laser light to precisely measure the temperature and density of electrons within the plasma. Understanding the temperature and density of electrons in a plasma is essential for several reasons. Firstly, it provides crucial data for the overall control and stability of a fusion reaction. In a tokamak, like the TS-6, achieving and maintaining the right conditions for nuclear fusion is exceptionally challenging. The plasma must be heated to millions of degrees Celsius, and the precise temperature and density control are required to sustain the fusion process.
During the project, I worked closely with graduate students in the research group as part of a research team, including participating in weekly research meetings. My primary role involved hands-on work in the experiment room, where I conducted experiments and analyzed the data. The experience was both intellectually stimulating and demanding, often requiring long working hours to ensure the precision and accuracy of our experiments. However, I gained invaluable insights into the complexities of plasma physics and fusion research while working alongside experienced Japanese graduate students.
JT-60SA Project Tour – Bridging the Future
On July 12, I visited JT-60SA with my lab group. It 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. 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.