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Nuclear Waste Startup Kurion Working on Japan Disaster

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Nuclear waste startup Kurion only came out of stealth back in November to discuss its plan to modularize the process of turning nuclear waste into glass (the generally accepted way of dealing with the waste). Now this morning Reuters reports that the beleaguered Japanese utility that owns the nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), plans to start treating contaminated water at its reactors this Summer with technology from Kurion, Toshiba, Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy, and Areva.

TEPCO tells Reuters that the amount of water that it has pumped into its reactors to stop them from overheating has reached about 87,500 tons. That water, which is contaminated with radioactive materials, needs to be cleaned, and the group’s technology can “adsorb and isolate radioactive elements, then the treated water would be re-used to cool down the reactors,” reports Reuters.

Kurion’s technology and business plan is to make the process of vitrification — or turning nuclear waste into glass — modular, which makes it cheaper, faster and more efficient. Vitrification essentially permanently encapsulates nuclear waste, and while it’s still radioactive, the waste can be stored and transported more easily. Kurion has also developed a better vitrification pre-treatment process.

Josh Wolfe, a partner with Lux Capital that invested in Kurion along with Firelake Capital, explained to me in an interview late last year 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.”

Kurion has completed other milestones over the past several months, including small scale testing of its technology, and has moved into “a long series of tests on simulated waste streams.” Kurion also says it has a contract with engineering firm CH2MHill to test out its tech to manage uranium metal bearing sludges at a site in the U.S.

Nuclear waste management is a problem that hasn’t seen a whole lot of innovation over the past few decades. Wolfe told me 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. Now with the Japanese nuclear disaster — which was recently raised to the threat level of Chernobyl — there’s also an immediate short term market.

Image courtesy of TEPCO.