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Michael Kanellos: April 27, 2010

Startup to Turn Nuclear Waste to Glass

Patrick Moore, formerly of Greenpeace, is an advisor.

Kurion will try to move the U.S. out of the 1950s when it comes to nuclear waste.

The somewhat secretive startup is devising a way to store nuclear waste through vitrification, or fixing it into glass or ceramics at high temperatures, according to sources. The company is looking at other techniques for turning liquid nuclear waste into a more easily managed solid forms as well, say sources.

Potentially, if Kurion can prove its technology, it could have a slightly easier time getting to market than the modular nuclear reactors proposed by NuScale Power, Terrapower and other startups. All of these companies will have to run a gauntlet of public interest and regulatory hearings. The reactor startups, however, ultimately have to sell their technology to utilities, which in turn would have to raise billions to build modular, gigawatt-scale power plants with these reactors.

Kurion essentially only has one potential customer: the federal government, which oversees the U.S. stockpile. And the NRC has a large problem of legacy nuclear waste. On the other hand, the NRC also has a history of examining, but not adopting, new waste procedures. The picture shows a vitrification process but it has no connection whatsoever to Kurion. (

Kurion's management includes experts from both the nuclear and glass industries. The CEO is John Raymont, the former CEO of Nukem, an unfortunately named company that provided nuclear waste management services for 25 years before being acquired in 2007 by EnergySolutions.

 The vice president of technology is Gaetan Bonhomme, a former senior research engineer at French glass and industrial giant Saint-Gobain. Josh Wolfe, a venture capitalist with Lux Capital Management, is the chairman.

The advisory board includes Patrick Moore, the Greenpeace founding member turned nuclear advocate. Moore is the co-chair, along with former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a lobbying group for the nuclear industry.

"Kurion is a technology development company providing proprietary solutions that isolate waste from the environment to help enable new, clean, safe nuclear power for a secure energy future," the company's website says.

England has used vitrification to store some of its nuclear waste while countries like Japan that reprocess most of their nuclear waste into fuel employ vitrification for nuclear materials that aren't reconverted into fuel.

The U.S., by contrast, stores nuclear waste  in steel cylinders that are submerged into pools. When these pools reach capacity, cylinders that have sufficiently cooled can be removed and stored above ground. (correction: we said earlier it was stored as a liquid. That is only in defense applications.)

The U.S. has experimented with vitrification for years and planned to use some form of vitrification at Yucca Mountain. It has even looked at the "synthetic rock" process developed in Australia. However, with Yucca Mountain stuck in a permanent state of limbo, the nuclear waste from the States remains stuck in places like Hanford, Washington.

Reprocessing, meanwhile, has always been a hot potato in the U.S. In 1956, Lewis Strauss, then-chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (a forerunner to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) proposed reprocessing in 1956 and Davison Chemical Company began negotiations to reprocess fuel with the commission at the time. The company, which changed its name to Nuclear Fuel Services, reprocessed waste from weapons programs in the late '60s, but not from commercial nuclear reactors. It shut down in 1976.

General Electric proposed reprocessing commercial nuclear waste in the 1960s, but gave up on the idea in 1972. Exxon looked into it in 1976, but then on October 28 of that year, President Ford announced that:

"The reprocessing and recycling of plutonium should not proceed unless there is sound reason to conclude that the world community can effectively overcome the associated risks of proliferation."

Jimmy Carter, himself a nuclear engineer, followed up with an indefinite ban. Thus, although Carter often gets the blame for putting the kibosh on reprocessing, Ford had already cast it largely to bureaucratic oblivion and the private sector had registered its doubts years before.

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