Japan is to link ten nuclear-fusion research institutes into a single network to boost collaboration between university research and government-run institutes.
The move is being seen as a bid to increase Japan's chance of hosting the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the proposed next-generation fusion facility. Japan is widely considered to be the most likely candidate to host ITER, as it is expected to provide the largest share of the construction cost.
The new network is the product of the Science Council of the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture (Monbusho), and links previously independent efforts in fusion research at institutes run by Monbusho and the Science and Technology Agency (STA).
The move brings together senior researchers and directors of institutes such as Monbusho's National Institute for Fusion Science (NIFS) and STA's Japanese Atomic Energy Research Institute (JAERI), and will launch research plans in seven areas. These include the development of new material for reactor-vessel walls, the creation of a database for superconductor technology and the development of novel laser technology.
The collaboration also involves the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute and the universities of Kyoto, Tokyo, Okayama, Tohoku, Tsukuba, Kyushu and Osaka. It is seen as a necessary step towards the impending merger of STA and Monbusho in 2001, and the planned transformation of national universities and research institutes into ‘agencies’ with greater administrative independence (see Nature 401, 416; 1999).
Osamu Motojima, professor of plasma research at NIFS, says that Japan's fusion programmes have been carried out as iso- lated efforts because of bureaucratic barriers between ministries. “The merger of STA and Monbusho should help break down the barriers and allow efficient collaboration between government institutes and universities, although the merger of institutes themselves (JAERI and NIFS) should be approached more carefully,” says Motojima.
“A strong research base is necessary for Japan's future role in ITER, and it is therefore essential to build a stronger link between current domestic fusion programmes,” says Masami Nakamura, director of STA's nuclear fusion development office.
Hiroshi Kishimoto, an executive director of JAERI, says the network will contribute to ‘satellite research’ for validating ITER design, for example the development of a heat exchanger for converting the energy in the high-energy neutrons formed in the fusion process.
But he emphasizes that the planned network for ITER would have to take a more technological approach than the Monbusho-led network, which is focused mainly on academic research.
Despite US withdrawal from the ITER programme, and waning enthusiasm among other partners, Japan — which last year suggested plans for a scaled-down version of the reactor to meet budget constraints — is still keen to host the facility (Nature 394, 3; 1998).
But some researchers are concerned at the financial implications of Japan's enthusiasm for hosting ITER. “The reactor is not expected to begin its operation until the middle of the next decade, and we don't even know whether it will work,” says one leading nuclear physicist. “We need to think carefully before making a commitment that could not only jeopardize basic research in fusion science but also worsen the nation's financial situation.”