At a Tokyo job fair for the atomic energy industry on March 4, Kenta Kakitani, a graduate student at the University of Tokyo, hopes to some day become a nuclear plant design engineer.
But Kakitani may be a rare breed in Japan, where nuclear businesses have seen a serious shortage of new talent since the March 11, 2011, meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
“It seems that the nuclear power industry has lost much of its popularity because it is seen as in decline and is suffering a negative image from having to decommission crippled reactors,” said Kakitani, 24, who majors in nuclear engineering.
According to education ministry data, 298 students entered departments related to nuclear power study in fiscal 2015, a slight decline from 317 in fiscal 2010.
Kakitani said that although the number may not have declined drastically, many talented students are majoring in the fields of artificial intelligence and aerospace engineering instead of nuclear engineering.
The turnout at the job fair reflects the nuclear power industry’s fall from grace.
In fiscal 2010, 1,903 students attended a nuclear industry job event. In fiscal 2015, only 337 showed up. This year’s tally won’t be known until after a job fair in Osaka on Saturday.
Demand in the industry for graduate talent, however, is on the rise. Firms participating in the job fair, including big names like Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Ltd., rose from 34 in fiscal 2012 to 59 in fiscal 2016, organizers said.
But recent news that scandal-hit Toshiba is scaling back its atomic business isn’t helping to attract graduates.
Akio Takahashi, president of the nonprofit group Japan Atomic Industrial Forum Inc. (JAIF), which organized the Tokyo job fair, worries that Japan will not have enough nuclear engineers even though it will take several decades to decommission Fukushima No. 1.
“It will be problematic if we run short of manpower,” said Takahashi.
Since the meltdown calamity struck, nuclear plants have faced stricter safety standards. Reactors are now required to be equipped with dozens of additional safety features to defend against various situations, including meltdowns, tsunami and terrorism.
Nuclear plant operators have had to come up with new reactor designs and deal with mountains of paperwork for submission to the Nuclear Regulation Authority, Japan’s nuclear watchdog, which has final authority over whether a reactor can be restarted under the new safety standards.
Japan Atomic Power Company, which runs reactors in the village of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, and in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, plans to hire about 30 rookie engineers in April 2018.
“After the Fukushima incident, nuclear power faced strong criticism. However, talking to the students today, I felt that more of them are interested in nuclear power,” said a JAPC official at the job fair.
The situation is more serious at the NRA, which assesses and inspects nuclear plants. The NRA, which also set up a booth at the job fair to lure prospective students, hasn’t made it a secret that it lacks enough competent staff to verify whether reactors are up to the safety standards.
The industry also believes nuclear engineering students are not receiving enough training.
Following the Fukushima meltdowns, research reactors, which, like their commercial counterparts have suspended operations, must clear the new safety standards before they can be restarted. For now they are idle.
“Over the past two to three years, students have graduated without engaging in the basic experiments that are of utmost importance in studying nuclear power,” said Keiko Kito, a JAIF staffer who is also a member of the Japan Nuclear Human Resource Development Network (JN-HRD Net). “They may need to study further after research reactors are reactivated at universities.”
The network consists of schools, companies and government organizations, including the education and industry ministries.
Education ministry official Ryosuke Murayama noted that research reactors were necessary to nurture students who can develop and operate nuclear plants, but would not help those seeking to experiment with ways to decommission reactors.
“One of the experiments considered necessary in the basic research associated with the decommissioning of plants involves the secular change in fuel debris. Honestly, it doesn’t require research reactors,” said Murayama.
Murayama is in charge of the ministry’s program to decommission Fukushima No. 1, offering budgets to schools and corporations if their research disciplines are considered effective.
The ministry also earmarked about ¥60 million a year until 2019 for a Fukushima University program aimed at educating students and training working-level technicians for decommissioning the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
Starting in April, roughly 20 students enrolled in the program are set to visit Fukushima No. 1 as part of extracurricular study.
Fukushima University President Katsumi Nakai reportedly plans to offer similar opportunities to students outside the program, such as those studying psychology or risk communications, starting in 2018.
The education ministry, in cooperation with other organizations, including JN-HRD Net, formed a working group in 2015 to look into the human resources needs of the country’s nuclear power industry, according to a report published in 2016.
“Decommissioning will take decades,” said Murayama of the education ministry. “We hope to develop human resources in various fields. Other than those with traditional nuclear engineering backgrounds, we may want people from the fields of robotics, chemistry and even civil engineering.”
But whether the government effort will bear fruit remains to be seen.
Of the students who attended the job fair, those majoring in other disciplines besides nuclear energy, including in electrical and electronic engineering and liberal arts, were in sharp decline.
Less than 50 liberal arts students showed up at the event in fiscal 2015, down from over 250 in fiscal 2010, according to JAIF.
Moreover, a JAIF staffer said the decline in liberal arts students showed the lack of popularity of the nuclear power industry.