By Larry Bock
Founder and organizer, USA Science & Engineering Festival
When searching for a prime, real-life example of how science and technology are making a difference in the world right now, my thoughts lately turn to a small but feisty greentech startup that you may never have heard of: Kurion, Inc.
Based in Irvine, CA with 15 employees, this profitable three-year-old company which specializes in nuclear waste cleanup has quietly and effectively been using its technology at the front lines of Fukushima, the site of what is being called one of the largest nuclear disasters in history. Weeks after the unforgettable earthquake and ensuing tsunami struck Japan last year which caused emissions of nuclear contaminants to be released into the air from reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, Kurion was selected to join a group of multi-billion dollar companies to help clean seawater that was being pumped into the reactors to cool them down.
Within three weeks of first contact, TEPCO authorized Kurion’s proposed solution to the challenge. Eight weeks later, Kurion’s system had been designed, built, air freighted by three Russian Antonov transports, installed and was fully operational removing more than 99.9% of the seawater radioactivity of greatest concern. Other companies which were awarded contracts by the Japan utility TEPCO to aid in this challenging duty were France’s AREVA, Japan’s Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy and Toshiba. Of these, only Kurion and AREVA were able to deliver systems in time to prevent the highly contaminated seawater from overflowing the limited available tankage into the ocean and of these only Kurion continues to operate today.
Kurion stands out as the only startup selected — and for good reason: the firm for a while has been developing a material called “ion specific media” that greatly improves the way cleanup technology is deployed to soak up nuclear particles and as a result shrink the radioactive material down to a small manageable size. The resulting waste stream, an inorganic powder, can further be turned into glass (a standard industry process known as vitrification). Kurion’s innovation brings a more modular approach to the vitrification process, so the clean-up technology can be quickly adapted and installed in the contaminated spill site. Add to that Kurion’s team composed of nuclear waste industry veterans, and you’ll understand why the company was able to enter a direct contractual arrangement with TEPCO.
Since last June, says Kurion’s CEO John Raymont, the company’s technology has been used as part of what he calls “an unprecedented external reactor water cooling system,” designed to replace Fukushima’s in-plant reactor water cooling mechanism until the reactor’s original nuclear cores can be removed. Bottom line: Kurion’s presence at Fukushima is helping to mitigate radiation contamination to humans and the environment, dramatically turning a disastrous situation around.
As the first anniversary of the Fukushima disaster past on March 11th, Kurion and the cleanup are perfect examples of how science and technology are making a difference where it matters around the world. In my opinion, it illustrates in realistic terms what it means to be human in the nuclear age — with all the benefits and risks nuclear power brings.
To help get this message across, we are proud to include Kurion and its representatives as key participants in the upcoming USA Science & Engineering Festival hosted by Lockheed Martin, the nation’s largest celebration of science and engineering. The Festival is on a mission to inspire the next generation of innovators by reinvigorating the interest of our nation’s youth in science, technology, engineering and math via hands-on presentations with experts that motivate, compel, excite, entertain as well as educate.
Kurion’s participation is especially exciting for me for a couple of reasons. As a startup entrepreneur myself before establishing the Festival several years ago, I co-founded or financed the early stage growth of 40 companies in the life and physical sciences from inception, so I know well of the rigors and challenges that Kurion has and continues to experience to further establish itself in the competitive field of technology. Second, at Lux Capital (one of two venture capital firms backing Kurion), I serve as Chairman of Lux’s Advisory Board of industry experts where we are all extremely proud of Kurion’s success.
Join visitors at the Festival Expo on April 28-29, 2012, in Washington, DC when we take you inside the power of nuclear energy (along with other exciting areas of science and engineering) with such experts as Kurion, the U.S. Department of Energy, the University of Massachusetts Lowell Physics Department, and the ATLAS Experiment at the Large Hadron Collider who are all helping to make our co-habitation with nuclear power safer and more beneficial. Here is just a sampling of what you’ll discover:
How Kurion is Cleaning Up Fukushima – From Kurion, learn how they perform remediation on contaminated water and stop the spread of radioactive isotopes at Fukushima and other sites. Kurion experts will also demonstrate how an ion-exchange column works and how they trap dangerous particles using their 3-D vitrification simulator.
Future Implications of the Fukushima Disaster — Meet and hear Fred Bortz, Ph.D., who is among our Featured Authors at the Expo’s Book Fair. A physicist-turned-writer, Bortz (whose science training includes three years in nuclear core design), is the author –among other works — of the recent book, Meltdown: The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future, which sheds light on the future of nuclear and what the next generation will face in dealing with its development.
Real-Life Applications: From National Defense to Biomedical Photonics — Learn from these experts: how the U.S. Department of Defense is developing solutions that protect first responders from potential nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological threats; how renowned physicists from the University of Massachusetts Lowell are making life-saving advances in areas ranging from nuclear physics and radiation science to biomedical photonics, and from the American Nuclear Society how to compute your own annual radiation dose.
The Wonders of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – Scientists from the ATLAS Experiment at the LHC take you inside the wonders of the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator which was developed over a 10-year period to probe new frontiers in high energy physics including the origins of the universe.
How the DoE is Impacting Climate and Energy Solutions – Department of Energy scientists from its Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) facility will demonstrate how its measurements are bringing science solutions to the world, including improving climate models, and researchers from the Department’s Berkeley National Laboratory will shed light on how they are developing new approaches to energy by studying infinitesimal particles at the sub-atomic level.
Radiation Physics in 3-D – Enter a 3D virtual treatment room with experts from the American Association of Physicists in Medicine and learn how a radiation treatment accelerator works. See how medical physics and science are used in the radiation treatment of cancer. Participants will get a 3D view of the technological advances used in this cancer treatment.
Nuclear power, the byproduct of our existence in the modern age, is here to stay. Join us at the Festival as we explore how to coexist with it responsibly and safely for the benefit of all. For more on the Festival, visit: http://www.usasciencefestival.org/