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Radioactive water cleanup steams ahead at Fukushima

Radioactive water cleanup steams ahead at Fukushima

Posting in Energy

For decontamination on the go, California start-up Kurion will deliver to dangerous neighborhoods.

Decades could pass before some of the areas around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant are again inhabitable, the Japanese government said Saturday. As in previous nuclear disasters, there will be lot of cleaning up (and waiting) to do.

But on the grounds of the beleaguered facility, a bit of cleanup has progressed fairly quickly. So says Kurion, one of four companies charged with decontaminating some of the water used to cool down fuel rods last spring. The job is a big one. Storage tanks are holding about 90 million gallons of the water—much of it from the salty sea, which adds a desalination step to an already complicated process.

Still, the California start-up announced Friday that cesium levels within the water has fallen 40 percent in two months.

About 7 weeks after the earthquake-triggered tsunami struck the nuclear plant, Kurion began developing a water treatment process with Toshiba, Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy, and Areva. It kicked into gear 8 weeks later.

The Ion Specific Media System (right) adsorbs radioactive elements such as cesium (C-137, C-134) and iodine (I-131) and separates them from the water. Kurion says it uses a radionuclide-extracting material similar to that tested at Three Mile Island three decades ago. The next step in the water's treatment is to store the waste as glass. Turning liquid nuclear waste into glass rods helps prevent leaking and makes handling and hauling the troublesome materials easier.

And Kurion is trying to make vitrification easier. The industry practice usually occurs at a centralized facility, but Kurion’s modular strategy makes house calls. This came in handy at Fukushima, where there was a shortage of time and resources in the region. Motivating the effort was a fear of more earthquakes and more water from the summer rainy season that might cause storage tanks to spill or overflow.

The company faced some hiccups getting the system running, but is overall optimistic. Their goal is to clear the water of 99.9 percent of its cesium. Should Japan's disaster area become a proving ground for their technology, there's thousands of tons of reasons to bring it on home. Kurion has reportedly had its eye on tackling the sizable—and slow-moving—nuclear waste problem in the U.S.

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Images: TEPCO

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure