Post Fukushima, Kurion eyes former nuclear weapons site in U.S.

Now that nuclear waste cleanup startup Kurion has successfully helped clean tens of millions of gallons of contaminated water at the Fukushima nuclear power plants in Japan, the venture-backed company is now eying a new nuclear waste target, according to the Wall Street Journal: a former nuclear weapons production site the U.S. That would be the Hanford Site in Washington state, where the federal government made plutonium for the first nuclear bomb, as well as other nuclear weapons.

After the Hanford site was decommissioned at the end of the Cold War, its waste wasn’t cleaned or stored properly, and it is now one of the most contaminated nuclear sites in the U.S. There are 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge in underground tanks at the site and the clean-up process is expected to take four decades. While a lot of big and small companies have tried to tackle Hanford, there’s been years of delays and cost overruns on projects, says the New York Times.

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

Kurion wants to use its success in the wake of Fukushima to get the contract from the Department of Energy to clean up Hanford. The Wall Street Journal reports that Kurion opened a testing facility at Hanford last month, but hasn’t yet secured a deal.

If Kurion is able to gain the clean-up job, it would be yet another win for the profitable, four-year-old scrappy startup, which is backed by Lux Capital and Firelake Capital. Kurion was the only startup — among a group of giant conglomerates like Hitachi, Toshiba and AREVA — to work on the cleanup of the Fukushima site, and I called the company “the most successful greentech startup you haven’t heard of,” back in January of this year.

Kurion makes a cleanup material (they call it ion specific media) that soaks up radioactive cesium and iodine in contaminated water and contains the waste by shrinking it down to a small-enough size, then turning it into glass, a process called vitrification. Vitrification is the standard way to cleanup cesium and iodine in nuclear-contaminated water, but Kurion says it makes that process 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.

A few months ago Kurion bought some more vitrification technology — called GeoMelt technologies developed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Labs — which were already under consideration by the DOE for being used to cleanup Hanford.