Energy powers the world. Today, nuclear power currently provides about 20 percent of US electricity— and 50 percent of its carbon-free electricity, according to data from the US Energy Information and Administration (EIA). However, what’s rarely discussed is the overall energy lifecycle or Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).
Just like other energy sources, nuclear plants produce waste while generating electricity. After the energy is generated, most of the radioactivity associated with nuclear power remains contained in the fuel in which it was produced. This waster is classified as high-level radioactive waste, a type of hazardous waste that contains radioactive material.
Unknown to millions of Americans, there is currently no permanent nuclear waste depository in the United States. Instead, nuclear waste is stored in dry casks at the locations of currently operating and former nuclear power plants around the country.
The United States is not alone. Around the world, about 490,000 metric tons of radioactive spent fuel is temporarily stored in pools and dry casks above ground. No spent nuclear fuel anywhere in the world has yet been placed in a permanent repository. Now, one California-based tech startup is on a mission to change that for the better.
Enter Curio, a New York-based nuclear waste recycling startup focused on commercializing the case for a closed fuel cycle with nuclear waste recycling and unleashing the full potential of the atom. From closing the cycle to the production of proliferation-hardened alternative fuels for its current fleet of reactors, advanced reactors, nuclear medicine, deep space applications, and advanced batteries, Curios is unleashing the full potential of the atom.
“The United States generates about 2,000 metric tons of new nuclear waste per year, adding to the approximately 86,000 tons that are already generated. Reprocessing nuclear waste is one way to make it less radioactive, but there’s only enough capacity in the world to reprocess 2,400 tons per year, and most of that is in France (1,700 metric tons) and Russia (400 metric tons).”
Founded in 2020 by Rabbi Yechezkel Moskowitz, Curio specializes in clean energy, a substantially lower environmental footprint, and advanced medicine. In January, Curio appointed Ed McGinnis to become its CEO. McGinnis worked for the Department of Energy from 1991 to 2021 and he knows firsthand about the nuclear waste problem in the United States.
In an interview with CNBC, McGinnis said the company aims to solve the nuclear waste problem for the United States while also making valuable products out of the used fuel, including fuel for next-generation reactors and isotopes valuable for space batteries and medical processes, to name a few examples.
McGinnis told CNBC that the ten-person startup is planning to have a pilot facility up and running in six years and a commercial nuclear waste reprocessing facility up and running by 2035. Curio’s commercial plant will have a capacity of 4,000 metric tons when fully built out. It will cost $5 billion to build and it will be about the size of an NFL football stadium.
“We would take title of all 86,000 metric tons and the federal government and the public would never see that high level radioactive material on their books again, we would take the burden of it,” McGinnis said. “And we would take trash and turn it into products and treasures. That’s our business line.”
Unlike the existing process called PUREX (plutonium uranium reduction extraction), “which among other things separates and extracts plutonium in a pure stream,” which can be a problem under nuclear weapons non-proliferation treaties, Curio’s technology will be different.
“We have a process where we never separate out pure plutonium,” McGinnis said. “We’re never going to do that because we want to have a proliferation security-hardened process. We have self-protection built in.”
Meanwhile, Ashutosh Goel, a Rutgers professor who has done research on dealing with nuclear waste with a process called “immobilization” said Curio’s goals are formidable.
“Yes, what Curio is targeting is ambitious. However, isn’t that the case with anything in nuclear energy?” Goel told CNBC. “If we are serious about reducing the carbon footprint and still meeting the energy demands of the nation, we cannot accomplish this goal without nuclear energy.”
Curios is one of the handfuls of startups solving the nuclear waste problem. Deep Isolation is another tech startup founded by a daughter-father team aiming to bury and safely dispose of nuclear waste. Unlike the current approach, Deep Isolation’s nuclear waste solutions offer an engineered system that isolates waste from the biosphere.