While 2011 was filled with dreary news of solar bankruptcies, electric car companies shutting their doors and U.S. politics demonizing clean power, I’ve been searching for untold stories of successful cleantech startups that have been flying under the radar. Here’s one that’s been at the top of my mind: nuclear waste cleanup startup Kurion.
The profitable four-year-old, 15-person, startup based in Irvine, Calif. won the mother of all nuclear clean up deals in 2011: Fukushima, one of the largest nuclear disasters in history. While Kurion’s CEO John Raymont wouldn’t comment on the financials of Kurion’s deal to help cleanup
Fukushima in an interview with me, the entire site will likely cost tens of billions of dollars over decades to be cleaned up by a variety of contractors and government workers.
This summer, about eight weeks after an earthquake and tsunami created the infamous events that led to the emissions of nuclear contaminants into the air and water at the Fukushima reactors, Kurion started shipping its nuclear water clean up technology to Japanese utility TEPCO.
Kurion was one of a group of companies selected by the beleaguered utility to clean the seawater that had been pumped into the reactors to cool them down. Others companies that made up the cleanup crew included France’s AREVA, Japan’s Toshiba and Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy; Kurion was the only startup included.
Nuclear waste to glass
Kurion has developed a material it calls “ion specific media,” which basically soaks up nuclear particles and then shrinks the materials down to a small enough size so that it can be turned into glass, which is a process called vitrification>. It’s the standard process used by the nuclear industry to encapsulate waste, but Kurion has created a more modular process, so the clean-up technology can be quickly shipped to a contaminated site, then the waste can be safely shipped somewhere for storage.
Since the summer, Kurion’s technology has been used as part of what Raymont calls “an unprecedented external reactor water cooling system,” designed to replace the in-plant reactor
water cooling system that normally would purify and recycle reactor water to keep the reactor cool. The entire water cleaning system, which has cleaned and cooled some 50 million gallons of water at the site, includes an oil and debris removal system from Toshiba, the cesium removal system from Kurion, a decontamination system to polish the Kurion effluent from AREVA, and a desalinization system from Hitachi.
Until the nuclear cores of the reactors are removed, they’ll continue to discharge nuclear particles, so a water cooling and cleaning system will have to be in place for maybe a decade. TEPCO originally thought it would use the cleaning system from Kurion and the others only temporarily, but TEPCO has now decided to keep the temporary system in place for at least a year, and Kurion has a continuing contract to ship its materials and technology to TEPCO.
Future of Kurion
Having one of the world’s largest nuclear cleanups under its belt puts Kurion in a prime position. However, Fukushima wasn’t Kurion’s first cleanup deal; back in the day, the technology was used to help clean up the U.S.’s own Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. But the cleanup effort at Fukushima effort has been far faster and far larger (at least 100 times the amount of water was cleaned at Fukushima).
In 2012, Kurion plans to use its success to double its staff to at least 30 people, and is currently on a hiring spree. While Kurion has the backing of Lux Capital and Firelake Capital, it has raised only a small amount of money, and down the road could potentially be looking to raise more rounds.
This year, Kurion also plans to develop its vitrification (glass encapsulating) technology more — to become a one-stop nuclear waste clean up shop — and be able to go after any contract in the world, says Raymont. Basically, it wants to compete with the big guys, and instead of being the sole startup amongst the large public firms cleaning nuclear waste sites, it will eventually aim to get a bigger piece of the pie.
Images courtesy of TEPCO.