Boasting over 60 years of experience, ATOX is a leading Japanese specialist in the maintenance, management and deactivation of nuclear power plants. Notably, the Tokyo-based company brings crucial know-how to the decommissioning and decontamination of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station We spoke to president Toshikazu Yaguchi to learn more about how ATOX provides human and technological assets supporting the nuclear power industry, while also pioneering medical applications based on its decades-long experience
Japan being an island nation, relies on 95% of its energy being imported. Recently the Kishida administration revised the basic energy plans to focus more on renewable sources in a push to move away from fossil fuels. Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, nuclear energy has fallen out of favor and yet despite this, advocates of nuclear energy champion its ability to reduce industrial manufacturing costs, which in Japan are three times that of the United States and twice that of China. The narrative is that Japan’s current energy mix is robbing it of its international competitiveness. What is your take on the energy mix that you think is best for Japan, especially moving forward?
First of all, let me say that the Japanese government has already announced this energy mix, projecting forward to 2030. Priority was given to renewables, then fossil fuels and finally 20-22% was announced for nuclear energy. This was already set out within the basic energy plan. The issue right now is that we are aiming for 20-22% by 2030, a stark contrast to the reality, which currently sits at 6%, mainly because the re-operation of nuclear plants has not progressed the way they should. Eight years is the timeframe we have to boost from 6% to 20-22%. Recently there was a risk of power outages in the Tokyo area too, so you can see that we are definitely going through what I describe as a “tipsy” situation right now. We rely heavily on thermal power generation and the road ahead to those percentages and more reliance on renewables is one we are not sure how to tackle yet.
As you touched on too, nuclear is quite a sensitive topic politically. The Kishida administration understands its importance yet it is still vague in public. The current Ukraine situation also brings up security concerns. Currently running on a pure renewables-based energy mix is not an option, and can lead to power outages. I think understanding is shifting among the general populace. Just this Monday there was a questionnaire in the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, asking readers about the re-operation of nuclear power plants. For the first time, 52% of readers were optimistic about it, whereas those opposed was around 41%, marking an almost 10% gap. I think this kind of understanding from the Japanese public will keep on progressing. There are also calls from economic organizations including Japan Business Federation, stating that nuclear power is one of the best options, and by assuring safety, they expect it to be the most basic and important power source. I think that has to do with what you touched upon. Costs of power are a major hurdle for Japanese companies right now.
As you said, energy is a real political issue, in particular, energy security is a hot topic, what with the world situation. Ukraine is in the midst of war right now and is the world’s biggest supplier of liquified natural gas (LNG). Also, if you look at countries like Germany, they are heavily reliant on oil and gas pipelines from Russia, which have since been cut off. France is going ahead with expanding its nuclear program, having already attained 70% of energy needs from it. The US, under the Biden administration, last year signed off on a USD 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, USD 2.5 billion of which was allocated to nuclear projects. As public opinion starts to change, could you give us your assessment of the opportunities worldwide for the nuclear energy industry? Indirectly, what opportunities does this present to ATOX?
With the global trend of decarbonization and concerns over energy security, I think the utilization of nuclear power will be up for review. I feel its utilization will spread, and we see that now many countries are going ahead with this direction. These global policies will make their way to Japan, so let us talk about what that means for ATOX.
Domestically, this means that business chances are going to broaden. We had new graduates join our company in April and that was the message I delivered to them. Generally, in Japan, there is still a negative atmosphere towards nuclear power, however, I told them that I was glad they dared to choose our company. I believe ATOX could hand over our expertise and know-how to sustain the soundness of Nuclear Power Plants to those young generations.
When I talk about overseas, our business actually focuses on domestic electric utility industries. Therefore, at this stage, I don’t think it’s prudent to talk about our perspective on our overseas business opportunities. However, as you already brought up, we are putting a lot of focus into partnerships with overseas companies like our joint venture with Orano. We want to utilize the technology and experience of overseas companies in Japan.
One thing I find interesting about Japan is the sites of nuclear waste disposal. In Europe, these are negotiated between the plants and local governments. These negotiations are notoriously tough and normally result in sites where they end up burying the nuclear waste underground. In Japan, this is quite different. The prefectural governments are very strong, have a lot of power and will sternly refuse to have nuclear waste sites in their backyards. As a result, the majority of nuclear waste in Japan is kept at nuclear power plants, within the facilities or around the facilities themselves. This staunch refusal stems from public opinion; people don’t want nuclear waste disposal in their prefecture. How would you go about reassuring the general public about the safety of having these nuclear waste disposal facilities in their prefecture?
You raised a really good point. Obviously, if we had an opportunity to explain such things to the public, we would be willing to do so. Our organization is dispersed all over Japan, so through that, we would like to support spreading such opinion up to local societies. Realistically it’s mainly the Japanese government that decides the final disposal sites. There is also an institute that works with power companies on this decision too. Without their request it’s kind of difficult for us to get into that field right now. In Japan it really goes down to the elections. These are held every four to five years, and nuclear waste is a much longer issue. Honestly speaking, these issues should be brought up by politicians, yet they often avoid these topics, when votes and elections are coming up.
Currently we have an interim waste storage site in Rokkasho-mura, Aomori prefecture, which means that eventually they will be moved elsewhere. Prefectures such as Aomori have accepted such interim sites, with the assumption that they are temporary. We have two potential candidate final disposal sites right now in Hokkaido. It is yet a preliminary stage but is a very hot topic.
Japan made headlines last year when it announced that processed nuclear waste that had been sitting around for decades would be released into the ocean. In preparation for this interview, we did our research, finding out that this waste was in fact completely safe as the waste had been treated over decades. The comparison I saw was that it was comparable to adding more salt to an already very salty ocean. These are two very diametrically opposed opinions on the matter. The media wants to sensationalize this as a disgrace to the environment, as opposed to nuclear engineers who see it as perfectly safe. Who should we, the general public, trust?
I think it's a matter of how the explanation is approached. I honestly feel that this particular issue was not handled in a great manner, especially from a PR standpoint. The treated water supposed to be released from Fukushima Daiichi contains tritium, which by the way is released into the ocean on a daily basis by nuclear power plants all over the world in accordance with their country’s standards, which are established based on ICRP recommendations. China and South Korea criticized Japan heavily for this. They do release a lot of tritium from their power plants on a daily basis into the ocean. We are doing the same too, and our activity is supposed to be audited by IAEA for its safety.
With regards to Fukushima, the fishing industry is staunchly against this because of the reputational risk the media presents to them. TEPCO said that they would dilute the tritium to 1/40th of the country’s current standards. There wasn’t a need to do that. The reality is that tritium is a naturally existing substance, even exists in tap water. We put it into our mouths daily without any concern. It makes me wonder why we were unable to make this message clearer.
As you know, it takes a very long time to decommission a nuclear power plant. The Japanese Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) states there are four stages. First, the fuel must be removed from the core, second, the system must be decontaminated, thirdly the decommissioning of the reactor, and finally, the building must be dismantled. The whole process can take up to 40 years. Germany currently has private enterprises decommissioning plants and estimates have it that it can be complete as early as 15 years. In the case of your company, what technologies or added value are you providing with your decommissioning services that can speed up this relatively long process?
When you talk about Fukushima, because of the accident, that decommissioning period is a lot longer than others, 40-50 years. Unlike Fukushima Daiichi, standard nuclear power plant decommissioning projects take around 20 years. Decommissioning is all about destruction, you don’t get anything new out of it. Therefore, from a power company's point of view, it’s easy for them to keep procrastinating. Technically speaking, they will be able to do this in 15 years, however, when it comes to yearly budgets, they tend to prioritize more re-operations than decommissioning.
We have been in operation now for over 60 years, with our core business being in the nuclear power field. I would say our strongest traditional business is decontamination. For obvious reasons, once a decommissioning project happens, decontamination is an essential part of that. That is one of our big strengths, and I like to think we are really good at it. It’s not just self-assessment too, many companies around us would agree in that respect. That is why we are involved in many decommissioning projects across Japan. It has created plenty of big business opportunities for us.
The recent shrinkage in the nuclear industry has caused all related industries i.e. plant manufacturers, engineering companies, maintenance/service companies to downsize their nuclear business. Our management vision is to have a mission to continue to support the nuclear industry, and we are working to grow this by launching an engineering division in 2022 to help compensate for some of the technology that has been lost in the industry in recent years. It was with this aim in mind that we acquired technical assets from KHI's nuclear division last year.
After a decommission, it is important to make the waste as compact as possible, therefore compressing or cutting is needed. In Kashiwa-city, Chiba prefecture, we have an engineering, research, and development center. We have accumulated a lot of know-how there and using our know-how, we collaborate with power companies and their subsidiaries sometimes. I feel that's a huge advantage here at ATOX. We have business with all nine power companies, from Hokkaido to Kyushu. Thus, we understand the technologies and knowhow that each company possesses. With this unique position we believe we can contribute to nuclear power plant decommissioning throughout Japan. Also, ATOX continues to be deeply involved in the restart of the nuclear power plants and to make a great contribution to it with our engineering team’s technology.
ATOX does not own but operates a medium-scale cyclotron accelerator used to produce Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT). You have expanded into nuclear medicine offering α-Emitting radionuclides which are used to treat cancer patients. Can you tell us more about how you’re leveraging the knowledge you’ve accumulated in the nuclear industry to expand and compete in the medical field?
For a number of decades, we have been doing business around the nuclear power industry and JAEA. We have become very accustomed to handling radioisotopes and through our work we developed good connections with various universities, for example, the University of Tokyo, Hokkaido University and Kyoto University. Naturally they led us to the nuclear medicine business. Research institutes needed a collaborator, particularly those who have radioisotope-related expertise.
Regarding the PET brain scan device “Vrain”, we worked together with the National Institute for Quantum Radiological Science and Technology. The technology itself was developed by the institute using public expense, and ATOX was responsible for its practical application. This was realized through industry-academia collaboration by bringing in our respective strengths and know-hows.
In 2018, we became an exclusive distributor in Japan for a 68Ge/68Ga generator, which is a device to produce eluent containing radioisotope, manufactured by IRE ELiT in Belgium. The eluent from this generator is used for diagnosing prostate cancer. A clinical development of this diagnostic agent is ongoing with Hokkaido University, and we are deeply involved in this research by supplying a 68Ge/68Ga generator. We would like to contribute to society by supporting people having healthy and long lives. Another ongoing project is developing alpha-ray therapeutic agents. We have been working with RIKEN and other institutes to develop a new therapeutic agent with alpha-particle emissions.
In terms of contributions to society, we started providing maintenance technology for social infrastructure facilities. For example, we provide non-destructive inspection technology and services for large-scale structures. It’s a unique technology that we obtained over the years in the nuclear field. By using X-ray technology, we can visualize the inside of concrete that is over one-meter thick, and this visualization technology should contribute greatly to maintaining the integrity of bridges in the future. This technology is used to conduct a demonstration project for integrity verification of precast concrete bridges for expressways. Like human beings, social infrastructures need to be maintained for their health and longevity. Our missions are to be needed not only in the field of nuclear energy, but also in the fields of people and social infrastructures, and I hope this infrastructure-related technology will spread to the world in the future.
What are your expectations for this new medical business? How do you see it growing in the future? Will you be looking for international partnerships?
Right now, we don’t have a clear measure of how much we can expand this and how big it is going to become, but I think there are a lot of opportunities. I do think in the future international partnership will occur, in the meantime I would like to focus on domestic matters, create some track records, and measure our performance in Japan first. After that, we can broaden our perspective overseas. I want to add on top of that right now our priority would be to increase the lineup of products in the medical business area. Currently, we only have those two products mentioned so far. To increase our lineup of products, we are actively searching for medical equipment abroad that can be utilized in Japan. I would like to say that it’s our first priority right now.
Please imagine now that we come back to do this interview on the last day of your presidency. What would you like to achieve during your tenure as president?
As this is a personal question, I would like to share my personal story. I did not create this company – I started my career in a bank. At that bank I met my wife and we got married. Her father was the president of our company and at the time I wasn’t thinking about becoming the president of ATOX, so I entered the company and worked my way up. For me, our employees at ATOX are our most valuable assets. I want them to feel proud to be an employee of ATOX. My personal mission is to provide them with a place of work, where they can exert their full capabilities, and where they can grow and flourish with their families. Our sister company exists and is called Globeship and I am the president and director of that company as well. I wish to say that if you come again for an interview on my last day of my presidency, this has continued to be our ethos.