Nuclear waste cleanup startup Kurion says it has shipped several hundred tons of its equipment that will be used to clean contaminated water at the Fukushima nuclear power plants in Japan that suffered damage in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. Kurion says some of its engineers have already arrived at the Fukushima sites, and more will arrive over the next two weeks, and by June Kurion expects its radioactive water cleaning technology to be installed at the nuclear plants. We reported in April that Kurion was working on the Japanese nuclear disaster.
Kurion’s technology, and business plan, is to make the process of vitrification — turning nuclear waste into glass — modular, which makes it cheaper, faster and more efficient. Vitrification is the standard way to clean up nuclear waste, and Kurion essentially brings the technology to the waste tanks, instead of taking the waste to a massive centralized treatment plant.
Before Kurion turns the waste into glass, it uses a material to soak up the waste, which it calls “ion specific media,” and then shrinks the material down to a small enough size so that it can be turned into glass. Vitrification essentially permanently encapsulates the nuclear waste, and while it’s still radioactive, the waste can be stored and transported more easily.
Kurion says at the Fukushima plants, its technology will be used on radioactive contaminated water that is in the turbine buildings, as well as on new cooling water that is being added every day. Some of the more standard nuclear cleanup materials couldn’t be used because they don’t work with saltwater, and sea water was pumped into the Fukushima plants in order to cool the reactor in response to the disaster.
Kurion’s cleanup material has previously been used to clean up contaminated liquids at the Three Mile Island incident. But Kurion CEO John Raymont said in a statement that while the Three Mile Island clean up preparation process took 18 months, it only took five weeks to deliver the technology for the Fukushima project, due to developments in innovation and modularization. As an additional defense against radioactive waste at the Fukushima plants, Areva is also developing a second radioactive removal system that will be used, and both Toshiba and Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy are involved in the project, too.
Kurion is a three-year-old company based in Irvine, Calif. backed by Lux Capital and Firelake Capital. Kurion says it is the only American company working on this cleanup project. Kurion has completed other milestones over the past several months, including small scale testing of its technology, and has also moved into “a long series of tests on simulated waste streams.” In addition Kurion 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 — according to some estimates $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, there is an immediate market.
Image courtesy of TEPCO (not Kurion’s tech).