Stealth Kurion Emerges to Turn Nuclear Waste Into Glass

Turning nuclear waste into glass — called vitrification — is the generally accepted way of dealing with nuclear waste. Engineering giant Bechtel is building the world’s largest vitrification plant in Hanford, Washington for the Department of Energy. But a startup called Kurion emerged from stealth on Monday with a plan to modularize that vitrification nuclear waste management process, making it cheaper, faster and more efficient.

At least that’s the idea. Josh Wolfe, a partner with Lux Capital that invested in Kurion along with Firelake Capital, explained to me in an interview that Kurion’s process called the “Modular Vitrification System (MVS),” “brings the technology to the waste tanks, instead of taking the waste to a massive centralized treatment plant.” “Our technology flips the vitrification process on its head,” said Wolfe, “making vitrification an order of magnitude less expensive.”

In addition Kurion says it has developed a better vitrification pre-treatment process — basically the first step in treating the nuclear waste and turning it into glass. Vitrification essentially permanently encapsulates nuclear waste, and while it’s still radioactive, the waste can be stored and transported more easily.

Kurion has hit some key milestones, which is why it has started talking now after two years in development (I only first read about them back in April). The company says that it has completed small scale testing of its technology, and has moved into “a long series of tests on simulated waste streams,” scheduled to start this month. Kurion also says it has a contract with engineering firm CH2MHill to test out its tech to manage uranium metal bearing sludges at the Hanford site.

Nuclear waste management is a problem that hasn’t seen a whole lot of innovation over the past few decades. Wolfe said that $1 out of every $4 from the Department of Energy’s budget goes toward nuclear waste management, so there is a sizable opportunity to help the DOE cut that expense.

Kurion sees two potential types of customers: 1). engineering companies like Bechtel (that get money from the DOE to manage waste) and 2). commercial utilities that control a third of the nuclear fleet. Bechtel will always be a major player in this market, said Wolfe, and they could be a potential partner or even acquirer some day.

Wolfe emphasized to me that the Kurion investment was the only way Lux Capital could envision backing nuclear from a VC perspective. “We wanted to be totally agnostic about whether there would be a nuclear renaissance or a decline,” said Wolfe. If more nuclear plants are built, or more are decommissioned, the waste will need to be managed somehow. “Win lose or draw nuclear waste is a big market,” said Wolfe.

Bill Gates has noticed the nuclear waste management market, too. Gates has invested in TerraPower (along with Vinod Khosla), which has developed a traveling wave nuclear reactor design that can run on its own waste product.

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Image courtesy of Bechtel.