Kurion pitches new vitrification system for Hanford tank waste

Herald Staff WriterMarch 20, 2013 

Kurion is proposing tank-side vitrification of radioactive waste as a way to address Hanford’s issues with leaking underground tanks.

The small company, which has opened a 13,000-square-foot testing facility in Richland, is not proposing to replace the $12.2 billion vitrification plant being built at Hanford to treat up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste now held in underground tanks.

Instead, it is offering a supplemental treatment technology that it says could be ready to treat the low-activity radioactive waste that makes up the majority of the tank waste by late 2014. Kurion believes its system is a more flexible way to treat waste, because waste is vitrified into a stable glass form in small, customized batches.

Perhaps its biggest selling point is its argument that its technology would be ready faster.

The recent discovery that six single-shell tanks appear to be leaking radioactive waste into the ground in central Hanford has increased the urgency to get single-shell tanks emptied and the waste treated for disposal.

The vitrification plant is not required to start vitrifying waste until 2019, although the Department of Energy is considering whether it could start treatment of low-activity waste earlier. Treatment of high-level waste, which is plagued by technical questions, could start later.

The Department of Energy has been working to empty the waste from 149 single-shell tanks into 28 newer double-shell tanks. However, it’s running out of space in the double-shell tanks, and one of the tanks has been discovered to be leaking waste from its inner shell into its outer shell.

DOE has counted on getting waste treated at the Waste Treatment Plant to free up double-shell space to allow more waste to be emptied from older single-shell tanks.

DOE also is considering whether a limited amount of the waste could be sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a national repository for transuranic waste — typically waste contaminated with plutonium — in New Mexico. But DOE must convince New Mexico to accept the waste, and that and other steps to prepare shipments will require two to four years of work.

That could make Kurion’s proposal to be ready to treat waste in about 20 months tempting to DOE, which has no stake in the project now.

Kurion is working to make its technology more attractive to DOE by working through the technology readiness steps that DOE requires of any project and typically would be done by DOE on a new project.

“We’re not coming to them with an idea. We’re coming with a proven technology,” said Dave Brockman, the retired top manager of both Hanford DOE offices and now deputy chief operating officer for Kurion. “With all this front-end testing and the design all done, imagine how much quicker it could be applied.”

Kurion has spent $20 million in private money to develop the technology, including opening a north Richland facility last year to develop and demonstrate its modular vitrification system on a nonradioactive waste simulant.

“Today it’s a $7 million facility making glass, good glass,” said Richard Keenan, Kurion vice president of engineering.

Kurion also has hired Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to test the system at the engineering scale with radioactive material in the 325 Building at Hanford.

Kurion’s test laboratory was established in Richland in 2012 after about two years of work on the system in Missouri, including at Missouri University. Kurion initially has focused on developing the technology for use at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. Kurion has used a proprietary material to capture cesium that contaminated sea water used to cool the reactors after the nuclear disaster two years ago.

To date, it has cleaned 45.7 million gallons of contaminated water, leaving a granular material with cesium bound up in it. Kurion is pitching vitrification of the waste with its modular system to Japanese power officials.

The modular vitrification system would work well in Japan because of the limited space available at the Fukushima plant, according to Kurion. That also would be an advantage at Hanford, because the system could be built in skids to be operated at the Hanford tanks, Keenan said.

The Hanford Waste Treatment Plant will vitrify waste by continually operating melters that heat up waste and glass-forming material, then pour the mixture into containers for disposal. The mixture is heated with electrodes inserted into the melters, which must be periodically replaced.

In contrast, Kurion’s system relies on a source of energy that does not come in contact with the waste. Instead, the waste is vitrified in individual canisters by heating the liner, which radiates heat into the waste.

Waste is melted in layers as heating reduces the air or liquid volume. The process can be varied to best suit each small batch of waste and allows less pretreatment of the waste, according to Kurion. That customization can allow more waste to be incorporated into the glass, Keenan said.

Kurion plans an open house 2 to 3 p.m. Thursday to show off its modular vitrification system at 2579 Stevens Drive, Richland. Call 509-942-1114 for more information.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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