Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

How Kurion Plans to Clean Up Fukushima’s Tritium Nuclear Waste

An innovative method for tritium removal.

Innovator: Gaëtan Bonhomme
Age: 39
Chief technology officer at Kurion, a nuclear waste cleanup company with 200 employees that was acquired on Feb. 3 by Veolia, a French waste company

Form and function
Tritium is an especially tough nuclear waste to remove, because it’s a form of hydrogen and naturally bonds with water molecules. Kurion’s hardware separates contaminated water into component elements.

Background
In 2014, Kurion began removing strontium from 400,000 tons of contaminated water at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Illustration: 731

1. Separation
An electrolyzer splits the water’s oxygen molecules off from its contaminated hydrogen. The oxygen exits through one of the device’s tubes, while the hydrogen and tritium gas flows into a catalytic exchange column, where it’s combined with water.

2. Reduction
Kurion’s proprietary equipment keeps the hydrogen isolated in an ever smaller amount of water cycled through the exchange column. The net effect: 99 percent less contaminated water.

Revenue
Bonhomme says Kurion took in about $100 million last year selling cleanup equipment and services, like using chemicals and heat to turn toxic waste into glass.

Funding
Japan’s economic ministry has granted the company $8.3 million for research.

Next Steps
To show it can handle the tritium at Fukushima, Kurion brought a large-scale demo online at its Richland, Wash., office late last year. Kurion says it could begin processing Fukushima’s tritium-contaminated water in as little as 18 months, but that Japan’s government will likely take until 2018 to evaluate its technology. “We expect to be processing tritium-contaminated water in the U.S. before then,” says Bonhomme.

(Corrects the amount of time it could take to begin processing tritium-laced water at Fukushima in the last paragraph.)
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