Japan inaugurated the world’s largest operational experimental nuclear fusion reactor on Friday (Dec 1), a technology in its early stages but considered by some as a potential solution to humanity’s future energy requirements. Fusion, distinct from fission, the method employed in current nuclear power plants, involves the merging of two atomic nuclei rather than the splitting of one.
The unveiling of JT-60SA, a recently established experimental nuclear fusion reactor situated in Naka at Japan’s National Institute for Quantum and Radiological Science and Technology (QST), marks a significant achievement in scientific collaboration between the European Union and Japan. Recognized as the world’s largest tokamak with superconducting magnets, this facility underscores the joint commitment to progressing fusion energy as an integral component of a carbon-neutral energy portfolio.
Situated in Naka, north of Tokyo, the six-story-high apparatus is a “tokamak” vessel housed within a hangar, featuring a donut-shaped structure intended to contain swirling plasma heated up to 200 million degrees Celsius. A collaborative initiative between the European Union and Japan, this machine serves as a precursor to its larger counterpart under construction in France, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). The overarching objective of both projects is to induce the fusion of hydrogen nuclei, forming a heavier helium element, thereby releasing energy in the form of light and heat, replicating the process occurring within the Sun.
The reactor, furnished with 18 D-shaped and 6 ring-shaped superconductor coils, is engineered to endure plasma temperatures surpassing 100 million degrees Celsius for intervals of 100 seconds. Achieving completion in 2020 under Fusion For Energy, this project represents a substantial advancement in overcoming formidable technical hurdles that have traditionally hindered the advancement of harnessing fusion energy. The inauguration is anticipated to expedite the worldwide pursuit of sustainable and potent alternatives to fossil fuels.
Fusion For Energy, the EU’s entity collaborating with Iter, has undertaken the challenge of unraveling the fusion puzzle. The initiative involved Eurofusion, a consortium with participation from Sweden and 28 other nations. Marc Lachaise, the director of Fusion For Energy, emphasizes that this reactor provides a distinctive opportunity for learning and exchanging valuable insights with Iter. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, asserts that nuclear energy is set to play a pivotal role in combating climate change. With COP28 hosting, the IAEA aims to triple global installed nuclear power capacity by 2050. The inauguration of the JT-60SA fusion reactor signifies a significant leap for Japan’s scientific community, positioning the nation as a key contributor to the global landscape of fusion energy research.
The U.S. facility employs a distinct technique compared to ITER and JT-60SA, utilizing inertial confinement fusion. In this method, high-energy lasers are simultaneously directed into a small cylinder containing hydrogen. The U.S. government hails this as a “landmark achievement” in the pursuit of an abundant, clean power source, aiming to reduce dependence on carbon-emitting fossil fuels linked to climate change and geopolitical tensions. Unlike fission, fusion poses no risk of catastrophic nuclear incidents, such as the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011, and generates considerably less radioactive waste than current power plants, according to advocates.