Tech companies to begin cleaning water at Japan nuclear plants

Fixing the Grid at Fukushima

A group of nuclear tech companies are poised to begin cleaning the contaminated water in the turbine buildings at the Fukushima nuclear power plants in Japan that suffered damage in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. Japanese conglomerates Hitachi and Toshiba, French nuclear provider AREVA, and Silicon Valley startup Kurion plan to start cleaning the massive amount of water — tens of millions of gallons — that have been pumped into the turbine buildings and has now been contaminated by nuclear materials, and is filled with debris, oil and salt (from seawater).

The group has been racing to officially start the cleansing process as soon as possible, hoping to officially begin at noon on Friday Japan time (8 p.m. Thursday night PDT). Speed is essential, because the rainy season just started in Japan, and if the contaminated water overflows, it could damage the area environmentally even more. There’s also the concern that more earthquakes could occur in the area, which could also cause the water to overflow. “We delivered the technology to TEPCO in five weeks, which is a fraction of the time it took to start cleaning water at Three Mile Island,” Kurion’s CEO John Raymont, told me in an interview.

Near of the Sea Water intake of Unit2 in Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station

For three-year-old Kurion, working on TEPCO’s nuclear cleanup is a game-changing deal. The company, which is backed by Lux Capital, and Firelake Capital, is the only American company and the only startup tackling the problem. Kurion has already run two tests on the contaminated water at the Japanese nuclear plants using its cleanup material (they call it ion specific media). One test it ran on its own, and one in collaboration with the complete tech cleanup crew. The tests were successful, “met the criteria, the performance and the flow rates,” said Raymont.

Now the colossal process of cleaning some 90 million gallons will begin imminently. First Toshiba’s tech will remove the oil and debris, then Kurion’s material comes in and soaks up radioactive cesium and iodine and then AREVA’s technology soaks up radioactive strontium. Kurion’s “media” contains the radioactive waste, and shrinks it down to a small enough size so that it can be turned into glass, a process called vitrification. Vitrification permanently encapsulates the nuclear waste so it can be stored and transported more easily, and is the standard way that nuclear waste is dealt with.

Kurion’s business model is based on making vitrification modular, which makes it cheaper, faster and more efficient. Often, the standard vitrification process requires the contaminated materials to be moved to a centralized plant, but Kurion’s process brings the technology to the contaminated materials.

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’s an immediate market.

Images courtesy of TEPCO.