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ATOX’s cross-sector innovation: shaping the future of nuclear medicine and infrastructure

Interview - June 12, 2023

 How ATOX leverages its radioactive expertise to shape the future of nuclear medicine and bridge maintenance.

TOSHIKAZU YAGUCHI, PRESIDENT OF ATOX CO., LTD.
TOSHIKAZU YAGUCHI | PRESIDENT OF ATOX CO., LTD.

ATOX was officially founded in 1980, but its roots go back to 1953: since the 1960s, ATOX has been responsible for the maintenance, management and decommissioning of nuclear power stations and other nuclear-related facilities. ATOX has also been involved in the Fukushima reconstruction project and, more recently, in infrastructure projects and the medical sector. Can you tell us about ATOX's evolution and history?

ATOX's first encounter with the nuclear industry began in September 1957, when 'Building Cleaning Corporation' was awarded a contract to clean the Tokai Research Institute of the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute. Through our experience of working at nuclear research facilities, we acquired know-how and skills in decontamination and other nuclear-related services. Later, Japan's first commercial nuclear power station, the Japan Atomic Power Company Tokai Power Station, was built in Ibaraki Prefecture, and ATOX became recognised by power companies nationwide by supporting the operation of this pioneering nuclear power station, as well as the Japan Atomic Power Company Tsuruga Power Station. With the advent of the nuclear age, ATOX has moved beyond cleaning services into a variety of other operations, including decontamination and maintenance work, and is now responsible for operations at all nuclear power stations in the country.

Building on this on-site capability, in 1988 the Engineering Research & Development Centre was established in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, and the foundation of today's ATOX was laid by promoting technological development.

In the wake of the dramatic environmental changes in the nuclear industry caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake, ATOX has taken its services to the next level and expanded into a wide range of fields. In particular, (i) 'Response to the Great East Japan Earthquake', (ii) 'Cooperation with overseas companies', (iii) 'Expansion into the nuclear medicine and social infrastructure fields' and (iv) 'Business succession from Kawasaki Heavy Industries' provided the opportunity for ATOX to grow.

 

In the decade following the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, many Japanese companies left the nuclear sector. However, this trend seems to have changed recently. The war in Ukraine has caused fluctuations in oil prices and the general public has become more aware of the importance of energy self-sufficiency. In addition, the Japanese Government has set a basic plan for nuclear power to account for 20% of Japan's energy mix in order to ensure a stable supply of electricity and reduce CO2 emissions. What is the outlook for the nuclear sector in Japan over the next five years?

A recent survey conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun revealed a significant shift in public opinion on nuclear power in Japan. Public support for nuclear power is rising, with more than 50% of the public now in favour of resuming nuclear power plant operations.

Although the next five years are not without their challenges, the Government has clearly articulated its policy by emphasising the importance of a stable energy supply and the reduction of CO2 emissions. The understanding of the important role nuclear power can play in achieving these objectives is more advanced than ever before.

In addition, utility bills, especially electricity, are rising and the Japanese public is becoming increasingly aware of the reasons for high prices and the vulnerability of relying heavily on foreign energy sources, while nuclear power is increasingly recognised as a stable and reliable source of energy. This public awareness will gradually shape public opinion and nuclear power will become more acceptable. Needless to say, the promotion of nuclear energy depends on its safe and proper operation and management.

In terms of growth in the nuclear sector over the next five years, we can expect a steady resumption of operations of various power plants. The nuclear power plants of Kansai Electric Power, Kyushu Electric Power and Shikoku Electric Power that have resumed operations are pressurised water reactors (PWR), while those of Tohoku Electric Power, Tokyo Electric Power, Chugoku Electric Power and Japan Atomic Power, which are boiling water reactors (BWR), are preparing to restart operations. Once these plants are back in operation, we will witness how nuclear power plants contribute to a stable energy supply in Japan. This will further foster public support for nuclear power as a whole.

 

Two years ago, ATOX took over the nuclear division of Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI). What is the background to this decision and what are your expectations for the future?

The decision to take over the nuclear division from Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) was made because we saw great potential and growth opportunities through this partnership. ATOX recognises the need to further strengthen its business base as one of the remaining companies in the nuclear industry. The succession of the business will enable ATOX to enhance its engineering capabilities. KHI also believes that ATOX has been recognised as a suitable successor in the nuclear industry. The partnership enables both companies to utilise their respective strengths and work together towards future growth.

In terms of synergies between the two companies, KHI's key technologies will be ATOX's future strength, while KHI's strength is its engineering work in the high-quality nuclear business sector. For example, with the takeover ATOX has inherited design and quality assurance expertise in the Flammability Control System (FCS: Flammability Control System) used in BWR power plants. ATOX is aware of the importance of the FCS and has been working with the BWR power plants in order to utilise it in the re-commissioning and operation of BWR power plants. ATOX is combining the knowledge gained at KHI to build a stronger nuclear power plant support system.

Another technology ATOX is focusing on is the High Temperature Engineering Test Reactor (HTTR), which KHI is involved in the development in the field of next-generation gas reactors; KHI is collaborating with the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) on this project and ATOX hopes to further develop this area.



ATOX's corporate vision highlights the expansion of its business areas as a priority. Social infrastructure, especially bridge maintenance, could be one of the core areas of business domain expansion. Can you tell us more about your business area expansion efforts?

ATOX operates according to a business plan and strategy, but the expansion of its business areas often starts with requests for support from external parties or proposals from external stakeholders. Through cooperation with external parties, ATOX has expanded its business and has co-developed various technologies. This same approach applies to our involvement in bridge-related technologies.

ATOX's core business has always revolved around providing services that support people on the job site and help improve operational efficiency. This principle has been our foundation from the outset and has been the guiding idea when working on bridge-related technology.

Our collaboration with the University of Tokyo began when we were approached to implement a technical concept developed by the professors.

In Japan, where the 1964 Tokyo Olympics triggered a construction boom, many of the infrastructures have become obsolete over the years and require maintenance. Of these, bridges are in particular in need of attention. For a long time, the non-destructive testing technique used for bridge maintenance and management was ultrasonic measurements. However, it is difficult to visualise concrete thicker than 300 mm using this method. To address this challenge, ATOX has developed an inspection system with a portable X-ray generator and a high-performance detector to visualise incomplete filling of grout and fractures in PC steel. The system can be used for concrete walls as well as PC bridges. Furthermore, this technology can also minimise the need for costly bridge replacements and extensive maintenance. In the future, it is hoped that the system will also be well suited to the maintenance of other structures, such as older buildings.

Radiation management has been a major focus of ATOX in the nuclear sector for some time now. This expertise is recognised and valued by different sectors of society and positions ATOX externally as a worthy partner to work with. On the basis of this trust, ATOX has been able to expand its collaboration opportunities at home and abroad.

ATOX has established a solid foundation with regard to technical cooperation: it is always open to different offers and to developing new technologies in partnership with other companies. Although ATOX does not lead the development, it prides itself on being ready to work with other companies and experts. This approach is deeply rooted throughout the organisation.

What advantages does ATOX have over companies specialising in other sectors, such as social infrastructure or nuclear medicine?

ATOX's strength lies in its in-depth know-how and expertise in the handling of radioactive materials. All employees have a solid foundation in this field and do not hesitate to work with radioactive materials. This employee attitude has enabled ATOX to apply its unique perspective and expertise on radioactive materials to industries such as healthcare and infrastructure and is a driving force behind ATOX's growth. X-ray technology for bridges is a perfect example of the innovative technology that ATOX can contribute to social infrastructure development.

In addition to the infrastructure and medical sectors, ATOX is also involved in the advancement of engineering work through its Engineering Service Centres. Radiation management is the driving force behind ATOX's progress in this field while existing expertise is driving the company's growth.

Talking about radiation exposure, it is widely known that certain levels of exposure can be harmful. However, it is also important to understand that strong regulations and measures have been introduced to ensure the safety of all individuals involved: all ATOX employees are trained in the handling of chemical and radioactive materials, and more than a quarter of all employees hold national qualifications (licences). In addition, safety measures that exceed national regulatory standards are in place to ensure a safer working environment. Safety is a top priority for ATOX and our employees are fully aware of this commitment and work in this field with confidence. In fact, we have provided such services to other utilities, including TEPCO, to assist them in managing their radiation exposure.

ATOX, in collaboration with the National Institute for Quantum Science and Technology (QST), has developed an innovative medical device called Vrain. This first ever helmet-style positron emission tomography (PET) scanner improves the accuracy of brain imaging. Why did you develop a PET scanner that focuses on the brain instead of a conventional model?

The development of Vrain, a dedicated PET scanner for the head to help diagnose dementia, is another example of an external organisation recognising ATOX as a potential partner: we were approached by QST to collaborate on the practical application of the technology, and we were able to develop a PET scanner that could be used for the diagnosis of dementia. This collaboration stems from previous work together with QST, a government-funded public institution.

The focus on the brain stems from the development of specialised PET cameras that significantly reduce costs. Standard PET scanners cost more than 300 million yen, so to make them practical for use in the field, we aimed to provide a more specialised and cost-effective solution through ATOX technology. We were offered this project eight years ago, and after seven years of continuous development, medical device approval was granted in 2021 and the product was launched last year in 2022.

QST recognised the importance of returning research results to society and chose ATOX as a partner as a private company with a solid business foundation to carry out the research and development. They were determined to put this technology to practical use in the field, which was the driving force behind the partnership and development with ATOX.

 

What has been the response to Vrain since its approval?

Vrain can be used for diagnosis, but not all of its features and functions can be fully utilized until approval for a treatment for dementia is granted; we expect the treatment to be approved in Japan by the end of 2023, or early 2024 at the latest. Once a treatment is approved, the ATOX device is expected to be used in hospitals to provide real data and the desired feedback. We are patient until then, but we believe that within the next few years, ATOX will receive the feedback it is looking for. Waiting a few more years is no big deal compared to the seven years it took to develop the device.

We have also obtained funding from the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED). With this funding, research and development will be carried out to expand the use of Vrain in the diagnosis of diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, brain tumours and higher brain dysfunction. The potential of Vrain in the diagnosis of brain-related diseases is really promising. In the future, we would also like to look into overseas expansion.

 

ATOX has partnered with Belgian company IRE ELiT to supply a Gallium 68 (68Ge/68Ga) generator that produces positron-emitting isotopes. This technology is used for the diagnosis of prostate cancer. Can you tell us more about this partnership?

IRE ELiT is a manufacturer of 68Ge/68Ga generators, and ATOX became a distributor in Japan in 2018. Hokkaido University is one of our collaborative research partners on a prostate cancer diagnostic (68Ga-PSMA-11 injection) and we supply this 68Ge/68Ga generator to them.

What is truly revolutionary about this prostate cancer diagnostic (68Ga-PSMA-11 injection solution) is that it can reduce the burden on patients. The traditional method of detecting prostate cancer in Japan involves taking samples directly from 20-30 different parts of the prostate and analysing them to identify malignant or benign tumours, which can be painful. However, the introduction of imaging using a generator handled by ATOX reduces the need for direct sample collection and eases patient suffering. Another attractive aspect is that the technology can visualise the exact localisation of tumours throughout the body. Currently, doctors may be able to identify the presence of a tumour, but it can take months to pinpoint its exact location. Furthermore, as tumours spread, it becomes more difficult to find new tumour sites. With this technology, however, tumours can be accurately located and their spread tracked.

Prostate cancer diagnostics (68Ga-PSMA-11 injection) have already been approved in Australia, Europe and North America, and I believe that the overseas experience will contribute to smooth approval in Japan.

ATOX has signed an exclusive distributor agreement with IRE ELiT to introduce the 68Ge/68Ga generator widely in Japan and is currently marketing the product in Japan. We believe that within one or two years at the earliest, it will be available in Japan for use in the diagnosis of prostate cancer and will help many patients.

 

Looking back over the history of ATOX, what projects are you most proud of?

One of my proudest achievements is our rapid response to the recovery efforts following the Fukushima nuclear accident, where ATOX played a key role in the treatment of contaminated water. I believe that our decision to return to the accident site at an early stage made a significant contribution to society and our customers.

I am proud of ATOX's pioneering spirit. Over time, ATOX's capabilities have grown considerably as our expertise in radiation has developed since our inception. However, no matter how much we have grown, we still recognise the important role played by the staff who supported us in the early days of our company and those who carried out the on-site response in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident as being at the core of ATOX's approach to our work. In particular, I would not be sitting here with you today had we not made the decision to return to the Fukushima accident site.

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