From Nov. 25 – Dec. 2, I was fortunate enough to represent Good Energy Collective among hundreds of young nuclear professionals in Koriyama, Japan. The International Youth Nuclear Congress (IYNC) is held every two years. It is designed to connect those in the nuclear field from across the world to discuss all things nuclear, and facilitate knowledge sharing and transfer across borders and generations.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station

IYNC 2022 was held in the Fukushima Prefecture of Japan, where nearly 12 years ago the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami contributed to core meltdowns and hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Hundreds of thousands of residents were evacuated. IYNC explored the accident, addressing various aspects in two conference sessions and multiple technical tours of the site and related facilities. Touring the disaster site was surreal; and the impacts spread far beyond the site. As we drove into the facility, we saw numerous homes filled with furniture and stores with untouched merchandise, overgrown with foliage, abandoned to this day due to high levels of radioactivity. 

Cleo at the Fukushima disaster site. Credit: TEPCO.

TEPCO, the utility company responsible for the accident, has built a number of accompanying facilities focused on public engagement and communication. The TEPCO Decommissioning Archive Center, which provides an ongoing history of efforts to decommission the plant, is prominent. I was surprised, actually, by the direct language that TEPCO used to take responsibility for the disaster. While the impacts of their efforts are yet to be realized, I do believe that there is a lesson the nuclear industry should learn — taking responsibility for past and continuing injustices is a necessary step to regain the trust of the public. TEPCO’s facilities, videos, educational materials, and tour facilitations felt like genuine attempts to improve public relations practices.

I was further surprised to learn how community engagement practices have altered the ways in which TEPCO is implementing disaster recovery activities. This is most clearly shown in how the company releases treated seawater into the oceans outside of Fukushima. As a result of the accident, and continuing to this day, TEPCO circulates water around the cores of reactors, which becomes contaminated as a result. While this water is treated to remove several dangerously radioactive substances from the water (like Strontium-90 and Cesium-137), it is particularly difficult to remove Tritium. This radioactive element is heavily present in water at the Daiichi site, but the company plans to release the water into the ocean after diluting it.

Their process for releasing this water has been controversial, yet consultation with local stakeholders has been able to influence TEPCO’s decision-making. Public concerns from fishers, residents, and others have led to the addition of new monitoring stations. TEPCO is also diluting the water further to ease community concerns.

Yet outside of the technical details, the damage caused by this facility is vast. The experience of standing in front of the damaged reactors is hard to put into words. It’s a clear reminder that risk will always be present in nuclear power, and we must recognize it, understand it, and communicate about risk more effectively. 

I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to see the site up close. The efforts by the thousands of employees on-site at Fukushima Daiichi every day are inspirational.

International Youth Nuclear Congress (IYNC) 2022

While the Fukushima Daiichi accident was important, it wasn’t the core of IYNC. The week consisted of a number of panel sessions, workshops, discussions, and other events with diverse topics — from spent fuel to new reactor technologies. 

Communication and outreach was a key theme throughout the week. Panels on communication focused on how we talk about nuclear and how we can attract younger people into work and advocacy for nuclear into the future. For instance, both Rauli Partanen from Think Atom (Finland) and Eric Meyer from Generation Atomic (USA) commented on how positive nuclear messaging can provide hope in the fight against climate change. Yet real change will require shifts in how we go about having difficult conversations. For example, Lisa Frizzell from Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization highlighted that Canada’s successes in engagement have focused on listening to communities (especially First Nation communities) and engaging with people where they’re at.

Rauli Partanen from Think Atom presents on his report “Beautiful Nuclear” during a panel session on communicating about nuclear.

I was grateful to present about the role of nuclear on a just and equitable grid, drawing from a number of the reports we’ve released this year. The desire of professionals to engage with justice work in nuclear energy was exciting. Directly after my presentation, I received many comments and questions that highlighted how much more research is still needed. There seems to be a keen interest in the social impacts of nuclear across the industry.

Presentation during Technical Track 8B: Policy, Economic and Social Aspects of Nuclear Applications.

While there was a Russian-sized elephant in the room (until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the conference was going to take place in Sochi), the international collaboration was notable and friendly. Innovation was present in every room as technical track speeches covered everything from comfortable radiation protection for healthcare workers to new air filters for emergency nuclear reactor vents.  Ideas were floated about the future of nuclear marine docks for nuclear-powered shipping vessels and using bitcoin mining to manage excess energy supply in new reactor constructions. 

The theme of IYNC 2022 was “You are the core.” While cheesy, I found it apt — nuclear today and the future of the technology tomorrow will be driven by the efforts of passionate and brilliant folks from across the globe. There was an apparent eagerness and passion among attendees to help solve climate change with the help of nuclear energy. In a conversation with Mark Nelson from Generation Atomic, he asked me what gives me hope. My answer was people — especially the engaged and passionate people I was lucky enough to get to know at IYNC this year. 

Thank you — very much — to the Good Energy Collective team for sending me to represent our organization, and thank you to the IYNC team for hosting a stellar conference.