Consider Formula One racing and nuclear engineering. Besides the more obvious factors--mechanical engineering, complex systems, carefully timed fast pace actions and reactions--what do these two things really have in common?
The answer: They are both subjects that captivate Dr. Akira Tokuhiro, University of Idaho’s Nuclear Engineering Program Director.
Tokuhiro is based at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES) in Idaho Falls.
Tokuhiro’s name and face may be somewhat familiar to you due to the Fukishima Nuclear Power Plant accident in Japan a year ago. Since that time, he has been interviewed scores of times, and quoted in news publications around the world for insight into the accident and resulting consequences. His seminar course on Fukishima has been one of the most popular University of Idaho courses the last two semesters.
Back to Formula One. The commonalities between racing and nuclear engineering are mirrored in Tokuhiro’s life. He has a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from University of Rochester and a PhD in Nuclear Engineering from Purdue. He is, at heart, a multi-faceted, some might say complex, person; it is not surprising that he embraces the more complex systems view of engineering. Systems engineering is a holistic model that looks at all parts of the system and how they relate to each other and to their environment.
“I changed from an undergrad degree in Engineering-Physics to Mechanical Engineering and then to a PhD in Nuclear Engineering. Nuclear Engineering has the system engineering aspects. I wanted to design race cars for the same challenge. Reactors require engineering and integration of many things, just like a car does.”
Post graduation, Tokuhiro spent a few years in Switzerland as a research engineer/scientist working on different types of reactors and thermal hydraulics issues. Tokuhiro had to study the German language which was a necessity in order for him to begin his career. After his time in Europe, he moved to Japan. Where he had the opportunity to be visiting faculty at 2 universities and was able to improve his skills at speaking technical Japanese. Tokuhiro’s fulltime job was at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency. It was there that the foundation for his expertise and professional contacts on the Fukishima plants began.
After spending 10 years working abroad, Tokuhiro changed directions, moving into academia. Prior to coming to the University of Idaho, he was a faculty member at Kansas State University and University of Missouri-Rolla. Having grown up as an academic ‘brat’, the university was familiar territory.
Tokuhiro’s research interests are varied. Among the topics are reactor design, safety, accident analysis, convective heat transfer, biometrics, human factors, and modeling and simulation of complex processes.
When asked about the students and other researchers with whom he interacts on a daily basis, Tokuhiro’s engine “revs up.” He believes that UI-Idaho Falls and CAES are a one-of-a-kind “small expertise community” that includes professional support staff, graduate students, laboratories and projects.
“The juxtaposition to the INL and to BSU and ISU allows for a merger of several institutions with different cultures and characteristics along with some common characteristics. It is an evolutionary institution in the making. We have a golden opportunity to move forward as a joint program of national stature.”
Tokuhiro goes on to say that the students are “gaining a unique experience in this environment and that the degree is the main objective. The students are focused, independent, resourceful and dedicated.”
That description is an apt one for Tokuhiro also. His goal is to “contribute positively to change and program growth.” He leads by example working tirelessly to help students and the CAES and UI initiatives move forward.
The energetic Tokuhiro sees the value of higher education for the individual but his vision goes further than just getting a good job and making money. He sees the value for the community as a whole, giving the graduate chances to give back.
“Timing and recognizing opportunity can determine many things in one’s life long journey. I encourage people to pursue and finish their higher education degrees; save for education. And for those who have completed their degrees, consider helping those who are less fortunate. Find a person to “sponsor” and help them finish their degree.”
He has been the driving force behind bringing students from the Korea-West internship program to Idaho Falls. The very successful venture has brought 10 outstanding S. Korean student/scholars to SE Idaho to work in internships ranging from Melaleuca to University of Idaho to Grow Idaho Falls. The program is a cooperative agreement between the government of South Korea and the U.S. State Department. While he doesn’t often admit this, Tokuhiro has served in a quasi-parental role to the interns, finding housing, driving them to work, making sure that they have what they need.
In closing, we asked Tokuhiro about the Fukishima accident. How does he see it affecting the Nuclear Industry?
“The sheer global fear of nuclear and radiation unfortunately overshadowed the tragedy of the historic earthquake and tsunami that followed. Through social medias and by serving on the American Nuclear Society President’s Committee on the Fukushima accident, I have developed an appreciation of the impact and significance of this accident on the future of global nuclear energy. “
“This event has brought the national energy portfolio to a forefront issue in many nations. For some nations, notably China and India, they are moving forward as planned and constructing more nuclear plants. Others, such as Germany, are reducing dependency on nuclear energy and replacing it with renewable sources over the next decade or so. Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy has been reduced drastically and is at a standstill. Because of the anti-nuclear sentiments, reactors that are now shut down for maintenance cannot re-start without local government approval.”
“In both Germany and Japan, it remains to be seen how much economic impact the lack of nuclear energy may have. On the other hand, with each new plant, China and India will have additional accessible power for their economy and standard of living.”