The Japanese government has set out guidelines in an effort to encourage more private sector research and funding in the field of fusion, and it has omitted a key word, “nuclear,” for fear of frightening a nuclear-wary population. Chris Russell joins us to discuss a trip to one of the country’s fusion research facilities.

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Shaun McKenna  00:08  

Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I'm Shaun McKenna. It got pretty hot in Tokyo last week, but luckily I didn't have to resort to turning on the air conditioning for relief just yet. I was one of the lucky ones though people in the town of Ibigawa, Gifu Prefecture, experienced the first mōsho-bi of the year on May 17. 

Japanese news clip  00:42

Shaun McKenna  00:08  

Regular Deep Dive listeners might remember that new terminology was adopted to describe an extremely hot day on which the mercury rises above 35 degrees Celsius. More bad news came last week.

BBC news clip  00:42  

Scientists have warned today that the world will almost certainly experience its hottest year on record within the coming five years. And the key temperature threshold is likely to be breached for the first time, which is a rise in global temperature by 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. 

Shaun McKenna  1:01  

That's a milestone scientists had been hoping we were not going to achieve. With all this talk of hot summers. It doesn't help that last week, the Japanese government also gave the green light to the nation's electricity providers to raise rates from up to anywhere between 14% in the Tokyo area and 42% in the area covered by the Hokuriku Electric Power Company, which includes — uh oh — the northern part of Gifu prefecture where that motion will be was recorded. 

Soaring energy costs aren't a problem that's unique to Japan, countries around the world are struggling to get a handle on prices, which have soared in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Even if we're able to somehow mitigate our current situation, though, what are we going to do long term when it comes to a scarcity of energy supplies, increasing demand and the environmental cost of the energy sources we currently turn to? Well, a lot of experts are pinning their hopes for an energy solution on nuclear fusion. And they were offered the slightest glimmer of hope last year when the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California made an important breakthrough in fusion research, for the first time, a reaction that produced more energy than what was used to start it by a factor of 1.5.

Lawrence Livermore press conference 02:09  

Today, we're here to talk about fusion, combining two particles into one. Last week, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, scientists at the National Ignition Facility achieved fusion ignition.

Shaun McKenna  2:28  

People are excited, and the scientists at Lawrence Livermore remain positive even though, as was reported by Bloomberg earlier this month, five similar experiments that followed the breakthrough were not able to produce the same result. Still, nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun and stars, remains the collective goal of nations around the world. And there are signs that fusion research is becoming increasingly attractive to the private sector, which bodes well for the possibility of more funding behind these experiments. Today, we'll look at where Japan stands in the global race to achieve fusion.

Chris Russell is a senior news editor at The Japan Times specifically focusing on environmental issues. In February, he accompanied science reporter Tomoko Otake to the Naka Fusion Institute of the National Institutes for Quantum Science and Technology in Ibaraki Prefecture to get a look at Japan's contribution to the international ITER project. Chris, welcome. 

Chris Russell  03:29

Hi, Shaun. 

Shaun McKenna  03:31

Just to start out, can you briefly explain nuclear fusion to us?

Chris Russell  03:34  

Briefly? OK. So that, you know, there are whole courses on nuclear fusion that would do a better job of explaining that I can. But I guess in short, it's the process of smashing two atoms together. So they combine and they create energy through that process, and that's due to the relative weight of the atoms involved. But you know, fusion is the science behind the sun and stars. So, unsurprisingly, it takes huge amounts of energy to manipulate the atoms in this way. And, yeah, it is easier said than done. But that hasn't stopped people trying and they want to replicate this process here on Earth.

Shaun McKenna  04:10  

Looking at this from an environmental standpoint, why is fusion such an attractive energy model?

Chris Russell  04:16  

Well, for one, current nuclear power plants produce a considerable amount of radioactive waste, you know, and that can stay radioactive for tens of thousands of years. That it always that fusion produces, on the other hand, can be recycled or reused and maybe 100 years. Its main byproduct is helium, which is a nontoxic gas, and substances used in the process. These are abundant, you can get deuterium from seawater. And also because it doesn't use uranium or plutonium fusion can't be exploited to make nuclear weapons. 

Shaun McKenna  04:45  

As I mentioned in the intro, earlier this year, you went to the Naka Fusion Institute, the QST. Why did you go there for this piece?

Chris Russell  04:52  

So QST plays such a major role in Japan's nuclear fusion research and relatedly they have this new device, the JT-60SA, which will feed into international research, too. So it was a chance to see that up close and speak to various experts who are based there. The facility is a couple hours outside Tokyo, we went there on a gray, wet day. I mean, actually, the place itself is also really gray — it looks like a rainy day. You know, it's just really austere, you know, I think the design budget must have been close to zero. But that kind of as to this deep science five, you know, the sense that real serious work is happening here. And yeah, it's just a pretty anonymous looking place. And there's really not much to give away the fact that all this cutting edge research is going on there that, you know, potentially discoveries that will change the way that we live would be found there. Although they do have this exhibition area for school kids that focused on an earlier version of the JT-60. But I mean, even that's a little bit drab, you know how some of these kinds of exhibitions for school kids can be, right? 

Yeah, the timing was also fortunate because, when we went, you know, the device hadn’t been switched on, and it might have actually been harder to arrange a visit, if it had been. 

Shaun McKenna  06:03

What did the device itself look like? 

Chris Russell  06:05

So it was this massive thing, you go into this huge sort of warehouse-like space, I guess, you know, really, really tall warehouse. And you're just kind of looking up at this thing, it's really big. But it's actually sort of hard to get a clear look at it. There's all these kind of gantries and pipes and all this kind of stuff around it. But if you look at the article, and you can see some of the photos of the device, you can just tell how complex it is, you know, there's so many things going in and out of it. And, you know, you see all these people kind of on top of the reactor kind of making these adjustments and checking all these different things, you can definitely tell it's super complicated.

Shaun McKenna  06:47  

You said it hadn't been switched on yet. Do you know when it might get switched on?

Chris Russell  06:51  

Yeah, so there have been a few issues over the years. And you know, they've had to kind of take time to fix those so they can resume the test runs. And at the moment, you know, according to one of the researchers at QST, they think that they'll be able to resume those by the end of the month, but they weren't exactly sure about the date. And then after that they're hoping to achieve the so-called first plasma using the device in the fall. But even then that would be a step before they kind of start the proper operations.

Shaun McKenna  07:19  

OK, so the JT-60SA device is working to produce plasma?

Chris Russell  07:24  

Yeah, basically, the role of the JT-60SA is to generate plasma, which is necessary for nuclear fusion reactions. And this is also part of Japan's contribution to ITER, that's I-T-ER, which stands for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, which is based in Southern France. So ITER is a global megaproject to create a nuclear fusion reactor, and the countries involved in it are Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, the U.S. and Europe. So basically, the data from the JT-60SA, the results of those experiments, that's going to inform the work that will take place in France.

Shaun McKenna  08:01  

That's interesting, because like, politically speaking, a lot of those countries are not on the best of terms at the moment.

Chris Russell  08:07  

Yeah, so this gets back to what I mentioned before about how fusion can't be weaponized, you know, at least as we currently understand it. So when countries look to nuclear power in its current state, and let's just pick a benign country like New Zealand, for example. So if New Zealand wants to pursue nuclear power, then maybe its neighbor, Australia, worries that New Zealand isn't actually trying to solve an energy crisis, but instead build weapons with which to attack Australia. With fusion, Australia wouldn't need to worry, the process doesn't involve materials that can be weaponized. So that's why all these kinds of adversaries can work together. And as you get a sense of this at QST, you know, there's sort of various bits of ITER merchandise or kind of posters around and, you know, it's these nice, like, ring of all the flags of the countries involved, and it's all just kind of like good vibes. And, you know, in fact, earlier this year, Russia delivered a giant magnet to ITER in France, and that's going to be used in the tokamak reactor that's being constructed there. And of course, this is all while the war in Ukraine is going on.

Shaun McKenna  09:07  

Yeah, if only we could all work on more things together. You mentioned tokamak there, what's a tokamak?

Chris Russell  09:13  

So there are three approaches that we're trying in order to achieve fusion. One of these uses a doughnut-shaped racetrack that uses magnetic fields to confine plasma. And that device is called a tokamak. And again, the Naka QST, I went to, they're doing experiments with a kind of plasma that would be involved with that. Another way to confine the plasma is to use helical coils. And there's actually a place in Japan, the National Institute for Fusion Science in Toki, Gifu Prefecture, that was actually experimenting with that method. So both the tokamak and coils use magnetic fields to try and confine the plasma.

Shaun McKenna  09:46  

OK, and the plasma is what makes up the sun and stars. 

Chris Russell  09:50  

Yeah, so plasma is one of the four fundamental states of matter. So you have solids, heat them up and you get liquids, heat those  up and you get gasses and then at incredibly high heats you get plasma. So the third way that we try to achieve fusion is by using lasers. And that's what the laboratory in California did when they made the breakthrough in December, they used a ton of lasers that are focused from different directions at this hydrogen pellet that measured just a few millimeters. And you know, that raises the temperature and adds pressure to generate plasma. 

Shaun McKenna  10:19

Is Japan trying to use the third approach at all?

Chris Russell  10:21

So actually, this is where things get kind of culturally specific, that third approach utilizes lasers and these can also be used for defense. And in fact, the California lab, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, you know, that has a national security focus. So because of Japan's pacifist stance, it's been really reluctant to fund that kind of research, you know, because of fears that it could be used for a military purpose. Although that said, Osaka University has been studying laser fusion for decades.

Shaun McKenna  11:00  

The piece that you and Tomoko worked on, “Amid renewed interest in nuclear fusion, Japan's research reaches critical stage,” it talks about this attempt to global cooperation when it comes to researching fusion. But at the same time, it also addressed the increasing competition in the field. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Chris Russell  11:18  

Yeah, so a government panel on Japan's national fusion strategy convened September stated, this critical stage has been reached where international cooperation is giving way to competition. And that's at least in part being driven by the emergence of private companies in this space. You know, of course, they will want to get ahead and you know, reap the rewards of mastering this technology. So, Japan has been researching fusion since the 1950s. And when ITER was formed in 2007, Japan was brought in as a member that has helped give it a bit of an edge. But this panel, you know, concluded that Japan was going to need to adapt to a new public-private model so as not to get left behind. You know, in places like the U.S. and the U.K., that approach is much more advanced, for example,

Shaun McKenna  12:01  

What's an example of the public-private model?

Chris Russell  12:04  

Well, we spoke to Taka Nagao who is with the startup Kyoto Fusioneering, you know, that was set up in 2019. And so he likened it to how NASA changed its set up around the year 2000 to provide more support for the space industry ecosystem, based on the idea that the private sector was more willing to drive innovation by being able to take risks and cut costs. Britain has gone this hybrid route when it comes to building its own Spherical Tokamak Energy Production, or STEP. And in 2021, Kyoto Fusioneering was selected by the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority as an engineering design partner for the STEP project. 

Shaun McKenna  12:40  

What does Kyoto Fusioneering do? 

Chris Russell  12:43

Basically, it provides high tech equipment that supports reactors, for example, diverters that absorb heat and ash from the fusion reaction.

Shaun McKenna  12:50  

Do you come across any other fusion related startups in Japan?

Chris Russell  12:54  

Yeah. So helical fusion is made up of some former engineers from that helical coil project in Gifu. And, you know, they were looking to create the world's first stationary small-scale fusion reactor using the helical method by 2034.

Shaun McKenna  13:06  

That sounds hella cool, Chris. 

Chris Russell  13:09  

Very good, Shaun. No, but notably, they set up a U.S. subsidiary with the idea being that the U.S. supports the private sector more aggressively. I think those are the words that co-founder Takuya Taguchi used. 

Shaun McKenna  13:20  

Does Japan risk a kind of brain drain by not supporting the private sector in all of this?

Chris Russell  13:24  

I mean, possibly, but Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, you know, he seems to be giving more weight to startup culture than his predecessors. And in April, Japan adopted its first-ever national strategy on nuclear fusion. And that calls for a wider participation of the private sector in research and development.

Shaun McKenna  13:39  

So if you're going looking for a career path, then perhaps science is the way to go.

Chris Russell  13:43  

Probably, but that brings up another possible obstacle facing Japan. So Kazuya Takahata, he's a professor at the Gifu Institute working with helical coils, he told us that he's somewhat skeptical when it comes to the ability for startups to get commercial reactors ready because of a general lack of interest in fusion science in Japan. And for that, he blames the educational system. So he told us, and I'll quote him here, “Students in Japan grew up not learning about nuclear fusion at all in secondary education. The only reference in school textbooks is in geology, where it's just a mention of the sun being powered by nuclear fusion.”

Shaun McKenna  14:17  

Hmm, and on top of that, your piece mentioned that there could be some reluctance toward nuclear fusion exploration due to it simply using the word “nuclear,” which in Japanese is “kaku.”

Chris Russell  14:27  

Yeah, that's linked to the general lack of interest in fusion science. And in 2020, Kyoto University, they conducted a study on public awareness and associations with the phrase nuclear fusion, which is “kaku yūgō” in Japanese, and it showed that only 40% of the 1,000 people polled online had heard of it, and that 86% of respondents didn't know that nuclear fusion and conventional nuclear power are different things. And when asked about the image they had of nuclear fusion, 60.7% of the respondents associated it with being dangerous. So you can imagine the kind of resistance a community might have if it were announced that a nuclear fusion plant was going to be constructed near them. Japanese people are understandably wary. This is the only country to have suffered an atomic bombing — two of them — and then of course, there's the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant after the 2011 earthquake. So actually, one of the recommendations that Kyoto University had was to call nuclear fusion something different entirely, or at least remove the word “kaku.” So that strategy I mentioned earlier that was adopted last month that actually dropped the word nuclear, it’s called the Fusion Energy Innovation Strategy.

Shaun McKenna  15:33  

OK, I can put a link in the show notes if anyone is interested in that study. 

Chris Russell  15:37  

So yeah, I mean, I think moving ahead with whatever model —  public, private, hybrid — you know, there's going to have to be more of an attempt to educate the public on these scientific issues. So for instance, you know, there's not the same fear around meltdowns. Basically, in order for the fusion reaction to take place, it requires a really sensitive and specific set of conditions. And if that breaks down, then the reaction just stops. So you can't have these runaway reactions that you see, sometimes, unfortunately, with conventional nuclear power.

Shaun McKenna  16:09  

You know, we haven't mentioned this yet, but the timeline for any functioning fusion reactor to get to the point where it's operating as the major energy supplier for homes and businesses, that's far in the future. I think optimistic estimates put it around 2050. Fusion’s also been talked up in the context of climate change. But since that's a more pressing problem, how much of a help is it going to be in tackling that challenge?

Chris Russell  16:32  

So the timeframe for developing fusion is a huge issue in this context. You often hear the quote unquote, joke that, you know, fusion’s always 40 years away. And that means it's very unlikely to help us in the near, perhaps even mid-term. Yet, you know, obviously, we need to be cutting emissions substantially right now. And on top of this, fusion costs a lot — billions of dollars. On the other hand, we do have usable, scalable tech that can help us bring down emissions right now, you know, all the different renewable energy sources and so on. And the argument is that, that is what needs to be the focus, at least in terms of climate change.

Shaun McKenna  17:06  

Speaking of climate change, while I have you, you recently wrote a piece for the Our Planet page about whales storing carbon. Can you tell us a little bit about that story?

Chris Russell  17:16  

Sure. So I mean, as you say, well store carbon, like all living things, but because of their massive size and long lifespans, it's a bigger deal in their case. And on top of that, they have a role to play in terms of phytoplankton growth, which can also help with storing carbon, and basically they do that for moving nutrients upwards in the water and across the ocean. And that's essentially done through their poop. So people have been looking into this and getting quite excited about whales as a potential climate solution. But it's actually pretty contentious. So, you know, the idea that whales are a major climate solution has actually become a bit of a recurring joke among science scientists. But still researchers are looking to quantify this contribution more accurately, you know, because currently, the evidence doesn't necessarily support some of the claims being made. So the article looks at the state of that research and debate, and where it goes from here.

Shaun McKenna  18:09  

Interesting stuff. So we'll link to that piece in the show notes. Chris Russell, thank you for coming back on Deep Dive.

Chris Russell  18:15  

Thanks for having me, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna  18:19  

Elsewhere in the Japan Times this week, a team of South Korean experts arrived in Japan for a six-day visit that included a tour of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, as the government prepares to release treated water into the Pacific Ocean as part of a decades-long decommissioning process. Japan Times staff writer Eric Johnston writes that the onsite storage capacity at the plant has reached 97%, which is why the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, wants to release some of the water as early as this summer. South Korea and some other neighboring countries are concerned about the plan despite Japanese assurances on safety. Before leaving, South Korea Nuclear Safety and Security Commission Chairperson Yoo Guk-hee told reporters that the delegation would be assessing the process based on scientific standards, and would quote “leave no stone unturned.” 

And the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Tuesday approved a government proposal to expand the scope of a blue-collar skilled worker visa in what is considered a major shift in Japanese foreign labor policy. According to Kyodo News, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government is expected to formally endorse the plan next month in response to concerns from the business community about a chronic labor shortage in Japan. If you've enjoyed this week's episode of Deep Dive, please be sure to tell a friend and leave us a rating or review on the podcasting platform of your choice. Deep Dive is brought to you by Jason Jenkins, with production by Dave Cortez. The outgoing song was written and produced by Oscar Boyd and our theme song is by the Japanese musician LLLL. Until next time, I'm Shaun McKenna, podtsukaresama.