How the Fukushima Disaster Made a Name for Nuke Startup Kurion
Nuclear waste startup Kurion went from a tiny company betting heavily on government work to one that overnight became a key supplier to the crippled Fukushima power plant. Having gone through trial by fire in Japan, the company now hopes to sell its waste-removing technology to power plants around the world.
The Irvine, CA-based company this week put into service equipment to clean radioactive strontium from the wastewater used to cool the reactors damaged three years ago at the Tepco-owned power plant in Fukushima. And last week, the Japanese government chose Kurion and two other companies to apply for a government grant program to remove radioactive tritium from the tons of water stored at Fukushima. That’s an important step for the company, says CEO Bill Gallo.
“We believe this (tritium removal) technology is effective not just for Fukushima but all the operating pressurized water reactors around the world because there’s been no technology to deal with it,” says Gallo, a nuclear industry veteran who joined Kurion about a year and a half ago. By isolating tritium and other wastes from the water, power plants can greatly reduce the amount of radioactive material they need to store, he says.
Kurion is something of an odd beast in the world of tech startups. There’s certainly no shortage of nuclear waste in the world—power plants alone have generated hundreds of thousands of tons—but the spending programs for treating wastes are dictated by bureaucratic government agencies, a situation that’s difficult for young companies that need earnings and rapid growth. Kurion’s story shows how picking a difficult problem and finding science to solve it can lead to commercial traction.
In Kurion’s case, investors at Lux Capital decided they could make money by taking a fresh approach to nuclear waste and then began searching for relevant technologies. One of them was a set of inorganic materials that can isolate specific elements from radioactive wastewater more effectively than current methods. (The name comes from a combination of curie—a measure of radioactivity—and ion, or charged atom.) The company took an initial investment in 2008.
When the tsunami hit Japan in 2011 and led to the meltdown of three reactors and tons of radioactive cooling water, Kurion focused all its efforts on providing equipment to plant operator Tepco. The company, which had less than ten employees at the time, supplied equipment—packaged inside a shipping container—that removes radioactive cesium from the water that Tepco circulates through the melted cores to keep them cool.
“When Fukushima hit, it was all hands on deck to deal with this tremendous disaster,” says Gallo. “The events at Fukushima were extremely unfortunate. One of the very small benefits by comparison is that it created a need for quick development and deployment of technologies.”
Since then, the company has expanded into other parts of the nuclear waste treatment process. In 2012 it acquired the assets of GeoMelt, a company with facilities in Richland, WA, that takes isolated radioactive material and vitrifies it, or captures it in glass. Vitrification is considered the best method for storing radioactive wastes but it also works for asbestos, dioxins, and other hazardous materials, says Gallo. The company, which now has 150 employees including contractors, also developed robotic technology to inspect leaks in the reactor vessel at Fukushima power plants and repair them.
The nuclear industry, both for power generation and military weapons cleanup, moves very slowly and is heavily dependent on shifting regulations. But the amount of money spent in nuclear wastes is huge; Gallo notes that a portion of the government-funded cleanup site in Hanford, Washington that Kurion is working at will take 50 years and $50 billions to complete.
There are a number of companies, including H3D in Ann Arbor, MI, that have developed better methods for detecting radioactivity and a handful of nuclear power startups with alternatives to the industry’s prevailing power plant design. Gallo, who has worked in energy and nuclear for more than 30 years, says there’s a role for startups with fresh ideas in nuclear but warns that it’s a challenging environment. “There are many barriers to a small company bringing a product to market because you have to understand the regulatory and safety requirements,” he says. “You can’t get it wrong.”