Vitrification company coming to Richland

Kurion, a company developing and marketing technologies to stabilize nuclear and hazardous waste, is consolidating its vitrification work in Richland.

It has begun retrofitting a 13,000-square-foot facility at 2579 Stevens Drive to develop its modular vitrification system and has moved millions of dollars worth of equipment for the plant from Rolla, Mo., as it consolidates operations, said John Raymont, Kurion founder and chief executive officer. The company was founded in 2008 and has headquarters in Irvine, Calif.

It also has a second new presence in Richland after purchasing GeoMelt in late May. The purchase included a site on Horn Rapids Road where testing previously was done for a proposed project to use bulk vitrification to treat a portion of Hanford's low activity radioactive tank waste.

Kurion expects initially to hire about a dozen people in Richland to further develop and demonstrate its modular vitrification system, which it believes could have applications to treat Hanford's radioactive tank waste. It plans to hire engineering, operations and maintenance personnel.

It picked Richland because of the talent pool of the work force, Raymont said.

"It's hard to think of a place with greater technical depth," he said.

Kurion has contracted with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland to demonstrate its modular vitrification system in the Radiochemical Processing Laboratory in the Hanford 300 Area, which can test the system using radioactive simulants.

"Potential suppliers to the Department of Energy traditionally relied on government funding to test their technologies," Raymont said.

But with pressure on federal budgets for testing nuclear waste technologies, Kurion is taking on the development risk as a venture-capital-backed company, he said.

The immediate goal of the PNNL team will be to demonstrate vitrification of Kurion's proprietary material used to capture radionuclides in highly contaminated water at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

But additional demonstrations at the national laboratory in Richland also are planned to show the system could be used to turn low activity radioactive waste at Hanford into a stable glass form for disposal, he said.

Now some of that low activity radioactive waste is planned to be treated at Hanford's vitrification plant under construction, but the $12.2 billion plant was never planned to be large enough to treat all the waste now stored in underground tanks in a reasonable time.

"Kurion has successfully matured its modular vitrification system as far as it can go without using confirmatory radioactive simulants," said Richard Keenan, vice president of engineering for Kurion, in a statement.

At the same time, Kurion will be scaling up testing with nonradioactive simulants with a prototype system at its new Stevens Drive facility. Next year it plans to be working on a system that would be an engineering scale for Hanford, which uses larger glass canisters than typical worldwide.

Kurion is betting that its system will allow less expensive and more flexible vitrification of waste than the system developed for the Hanford vitrification plant. The Hanford plant will use large melters with electrodes that send electricity through a mixture of waste and glass formers to melt the mixture and then will pour the mixture into canisters to harden.

The Kurion system works more like a kitchen slow cooker. The waste is vitrified in the canister, by heating the liner, which radiates heat into the waste. That eliminates the expense and months needed to periodically replace melters.

The heat quickly melts the waste in layers, eliminating a long heating time that gives more opportunity for radioactive isotopes to escape the glassification, Raymont said.

The process can be varied to best suit each small batch of waste. For instance, if a batch of waste has large amounts of technetium, the temperature can be lowered to keep it in the glass. If that's not a concern, vitrification can be done at a higher temperature to incorporate more waste into the glass, he said.

Kurion also will be continuing demonstration work at the Horn Rapids Road site, where bulk vitrification testing has been done. For Hanford, tests were conducted on vitrifying waste in blocks the size of land-sea shipping containers.

The GeoMelt process has been in commercial use since the 1990s and has treated more than 26,000 metric tons of waste in the United States, Japan and Australia, including waste contaminated with radioisotopes, pesticides, herbicides, solvents, PCBs, dioxins, furans and heavy metals.

While the bulk vitrification and modular vitrification systems have similarities, they have different strengths.

The modular vitrification system is suitable for liquid and tank wastes with challenging or varying chemistries and densities, according to Kurion. The in-container system is good for large quantities of contaminated soils and the company believes it is well-positioned for new contracts for that work, according to Kurion.