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Japan invests in nuclear power

The JET fusion reactor in the UK is a smaller version of ITER, without plasma (left) and with plasma (right). Image courtesy JET.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Japan is investing even more in the future of nuclear power - though this time they're setting their hopes on fusion rather than fission, signing an agreement to dedicate a supercomputer to fusion calculation for the next five years.

Nuclear fission is what modern nuclear power plants reply on: a uranium atom splits into two lighter elements, which simultaneously releases energy. Fission leaves behind radioactive waste that has the potential to cause serious, long-term problems, if it isn't contained. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, is what powers the Sun: two protons fuse together, creating a helium atom, and releasing a whole lot of energy.

Clean and safe power

Fusion is the world's power panacea: it doesn't produce carbon dioxide and it produces negligible radioactive waste, it removes dependence on the volatile oil market, and it can produce far more energy than solar or wind technologies.

If it all sounds too good to be true, it's because fusion requires a lot of energy to produce the plasma in the first place, and figuring out how the plasma - a super-heated soup of protons - behaves is a tough problem. Last week in Barcelona, Japan agreed to dedicate a Bullx supercomputer in Rokkasho to such problems for five years, from 2012 until 2017.

Japan has dedicated a supercomputer in Rokkasho to solving complex plasma problems. Image Courtesy Bull.

Ten times more powerful

"With a computational power above 1 Petaflop, the supercomputer will be ranked among the most powerful systems in the world and at least ten times more powerful than any existing system dedicated to simulations in the field of fusion in Europe and Japan," according to a statement from Fusion For Energy in Europe.

In 2018, a prototype fusion power plant called ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is expected to be begin operating in Cadarache, France. If the protoype is successful, an actual powerplant, DEMO (DEMOnstration Power Plant) will be built.

For now, though, "European and Japanese researchers will be invited to submit proposals which will be selected according to their importance for the development of ITER and fusion research."

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