Japan overlooks technological treasures right under its feet

Courtesy of TerraPower
An image of a next-generation fast reactor facility being developed by TerraPower

There is growing concern about Japan’s science and technology. Although Japan has been putting a lot of effort into becoming a “science and technology-oriented country,” its international standing has actually declined in recent years. According to a report released last year by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, Japan has been surpassed by India in the number of high-quality papers cited by researchers in natural science research, falling from ninth place in the world to 10th. Meanwhile, China, which continues to invest heavily in R&D, has overtaken the United States to claim the No. 1 spot. Many experts point out that one of the main reasons for Japan’s regression is its research budget. In fact, while many major developed countries are increasing their research budgets, the total research budgets of universities in Japan remained roughly the same over the past 20 years. While the U.S. and China are investing heavily — especially in artificial intelligence and quantum technologies, which are strongly related to the economy and security — Japan is lagging far behind in these fields.

However, there has been some big news in Japan. In January of this year, TerraPower, a U.S. nuclear power company led by Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, agreed to collaborate with the Japan Atomic Energy Agency and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. on the development of a next-generation fast reactor. They are expected to sign a formal contract this summer. According to TerraPower’s plan, construction of the fast reactor is going to begin in 2024 in the U.S. state of Wyoming, and they will start its operation in 2028. If the plan is successful, it could develop into a major industry and it might spur the development of new fast reactors in Japan as well.

The development and the construction of fast reactors by TerraPower is a project that the U.S. government is keenly interested in. The administration of former President Donald Trump had focused on reviving the nuclear power industry because it felt threatened by the rise of China, which is building new nuclear power plants at a rapid pace and exporting them to emerging and developing countries. The administration of President Joe Biden, placing importance on decarbonization, also emphasizes nuclear energy, which emits no carbon dioxide. The U.S. Department of Energy just decided to give $2 billion to TerraPower for the development of fast reactors.

In the struggle for supremacy in the nuclear power industry with China, the U.S. chose Japan as a trusted partner. Japan has a long history of fast reactor development, including the research-oriented prototype Monju fast reactor in Fukui Prefecture. TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque was invited to the annual conference of the Japan Atomic Industry Forum, Inc. as an online speaker on April 12. He stated in a speech for the event that Japan had “some of the best nuclear engineers in the world” and “the technology and experience we need.”

Japan’s fast reactor technology will be a key to the development collaboration between Japan and the United States, but Japan has not always been proud of this technology. Japan had fallen behind in fast reactor development when repeated problems led to the decision to decommission Monju in 2016. The number of engineers was decreasing and there was no way to build any commercial fast reactors in Japan. If TerraPower had not paid attention to Japan’s technology, it is highly likely that the technology would have remained buried and left to wither away.

There is a famous Japanese proverb, “Todai moto kurashi,” meaning it is often difficult to see things clearly when they are very close to you. As this proverb suggests, there are some cases in which Japan is unaware of the great research outcomes and technologies that Japan itself possesses. Researchers at the NEC Corp. in Japan created an important element of quantum computers in 1999 for the first time, but it is American companies including Google that have led the commercialization of quantum computers in the world.

In 2020, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to two researchers from the U.S. and France who developed the useful gene-editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9, more than 30 years after a researcher at Osaka University made the discovery that marked the starting point on the road to that breakthrough.

The joint development of fast reactors by Japan and the U.S. has taught us the importance of having our own great technologies. Now the Japanese government is trying to increase its research budget and expand its ranks of research personnel in order to make a comeback in science and technology, but it is difficult to do that overnight. It is necessary for us to find the technologies already buried beneath our feet and bring them into the light.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Sho Funakoshi

Funakoshi is a staff writer in the Science News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.