Next-generation energy source holds great promise for Japan

Securing stable energy sources is a long-term challenge for Japan. The potential for innovative new technologies must be pursued. Public and private investment must be increased for that purpose.

Sanae Takaichi, the minister of state for science and technology policy, has expressed her intention to formulate a research and development strategy for nuclear fusion, which is expected to be a clean energy source for the future. The minister said that a panel of experts will be set up and a strategy for practical application will be compiled as early as next spring.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has also called for the development of various innovative reactors, including fusion reactors. It is significant for the government to provide a major guideline for securing energy for the future, as doing so strengthens the research and development system, and encourages the private sector to participate.

Conventional nuclear power generation uses the heat emitted when uranium fuel undergoes nuclear fission. This mechanism remains the same even in new types of nuclear reactors, such as small modular reactors and high-temperature gas-cooled reactors that have been attracting attention recently.

Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, uses the enormous amount of energy produced when atoms of an element such as deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) are fused. Described as “creating a sun on the ground,” fusion is said to be able to extract from one gram of fuel the energy equivalent to that generated from eight tons of oil.

Because nuclear fusion does not rely on fossil fuels, it does not emit carbon dioxide. The fuel, deuterium, can be extracted from seawater, and the fact that it could be a stable, domestically produced energy source gives it advantages over existing nuclear power reactors.

Due to the characteristics of the reactor, serious accidents are unlikely to occur and high-level radioactive waste will not be generated. There is also little fear that it will be used to make nuclear weapons. It can be called a “dream energy source.”

However, it is difficult for the high-temperature, high-pressure state occurring from fusion to be maintained for an extended period of time under the current technology. In this regard, commercialization of nuclear fusion is not likely to occur until the 2040s or 2050s. The multinational ITER project’s experimental reactor is currently under construction in France by Japan, the United States, the European Union and other countries, and it is scheduled to start operation in 2025.

Behind the recent acceleration of investment in the nuclear fusion field by various countries may be the judgment that the results of ITER will bring nuclear fusion closer to practical application. In the United States, technology development by startup companies, in addition to government agencies, is also expanding rapidly.

In the development of nuclear fusion, the emphasis is shifting from international cooperation to international competition. In addition to accumulating fundamental technologies through ITER, the government needs to start strengthening the competitiveness of domestic technologies.

A venture company that spun off from Kyoto University is engaged in the design and development of fusion reactor components. It is hoped that the government will work to increase the number of such companies in order to broaden the base of the industry.

Nuclear fusion has the potential to solve global warming and the energy crisis at the same time. Japan, with its advanced science and technology and limited natural resources, should take the lead in taking on the challenges of this field.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 21, 2022)