13 Mai 2012
The number of students wishing to enter nuclear technology-related courses has been decreasing since the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
This is partly because the government's future energy policy remains unclear and the potential timing for the reactivation of idled reactors is also uncertain.
Nuclear industry workers have voiced concern that if the number of students majoring in the field continues to shrink, work to decommission the nuclear reactors at the accident site and those to improve safety controls at nuclear power plants will be adversely affected.
Tomonori Ihara, 23, a second-year graduate student at Tokyo Institute of Technology, said, "This year, the number of undergraduate students who attended the explanatory meeting for our graduate course drastically decreased."
The Department of Nuclear Engineering, to which Ihara belongs, was once regarded as one of the most prestigious in the university. Alumni include a number of prominent engineers, including Masao Yoshida, the former head of the Fukushima power plant who coordinated containment operations following the accident.
However, the number of undergraduate students who attended the explanatory meeting in March was only about 10 percent of the number in past years.
Ihara, who plans to continue his studies in a doctoral course, said: "The central issue in the accident was how the government and power companies dealt with regulations [on nuclear reactors].
"It wasn't a sign that Japan's nuclear industry hit bottom. I want the government to prepare an environment where we can safely engage in research and technological development of nuclear power."
According to a survey by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, among those who took entrance exams this spring, 733 applied to enroll in three faculties and eight graduate school courses with the word "nuclear" in their titles at such prestigious schools as the University of Tokyo, Kyoto University and Waseda University. The number was down about 11 percent from the previous fiscal year.
The most significant drop was in Fukui Prefecture, where many nuclear power plants are located.
The number of students who applied for nuclear-related courses at the University of Fukui's graduate school fell 39 percent from 46 to 28. At Fukui University of Technology, applications for such courses dropped 60 percent from 60 to 24.
Anxiety about nuclear jobs
The tendency to shun nuclear-related industries has also affected students' job-hunting trends.
"I no longer want to join the nuclear power industry; I'll search for a job in another field," said 23-year-old Isshin Takenaka, a first-year graduate student at the University of Tokyo in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Management.
Industry associations, such as the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, which comprises electric power companies and nuclear energy-related manufacturers, hold seminars on the nuclear power industry in Tokyo and Osaka every year.
Many students who have later joined companies in the nuclear industry attended the seminars. In fiscal 2010--before the onset of the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis--a total of 1,903 students attended the event, but the number dived to 496 in fiscal 2011.
"The central government has presented its policy of ending the country's dependence on nuclear power in the long term," said an official in charge of the event at the forum. "So most students feel anxious about the future of the nuclear industry. Until recently, manufacturers had the advantage in recruiting qualified job applicants, so they are taking the situation seriously."
A 25-year-old second-year graduate student of Tokyo Institute of Technology who is majoring in a nuclear field has received an unofficial job offer from an electric power company.
"I had concerns about the future of nuclear power plants, but my desire to learn about nuclear energy was stronger. Because of the accident in our country, we have to work hard to ensure the safety of nuclear power."
Meanwhile, the Environment Ministry is actively trying to recruit talented individuals for a planned nuclear regulatory agency, a new entity that is scheduled to be established as its affiliate.
Though it still remains unknown when the new agency will be established, ministry officials held meetings last month at five universities that offer nuclear-related majors to explain the proposed system. The officials also joined the students for drinks.
A senior official of the ministry said, "Most of the students want to better utilize Japanese technologies. Even if the number of applicants is small, we're seeking qualified students who are enthusiastic about such regulatory administrative jobs."
Prof. Satoru Tanaka of the University of Tokyo, who also serves as president of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan, said: "The work to decommission reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is a new experience for this country and will last about 40 years.
"We also have to further ensure the safety of nuclear reactors for their reactivation. Demand for nuclear engineers will continue to increase."
Tanaka warned that once the cycle of developing human resources stops, recovery will not be easy.
"For Japan to survive as a technology-oriented nation, more efforts should be made in middle and high school education to stimulate young people's interest in the field," he said.
(May. 14, 2012)