Ed McGinnis, CEO of Curio.

Photo courtesy of Curio.

Ed McGinnis knows a lot about the nuclear waste problem in the United States. He worked at the US Department of Energy from 1991 to 2021 and dealt directly with the failed US government effort to build a nuclear waste repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

“I certainly have the tire tracks on my back” for trying to get the United States to develop and execute a plan for the long-term storage of nuclear waste, McGinnis told CNBC in a phone conversation. in June.

“Essentially, both sides said it was politically unfeasible” to find a permanent solution, McGinnis told CNBC. “But in the meantime, we have a huge, huge unresolved problem that is about the biggest pain in the neck of the US nuclear power industry trying to transform itself for the next generation of reactors.”

This undated image obtained February 22, 2004 shows the entrance to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository located in Nye County, Nevada, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

AFP | AFP | Getty Images

McGinnis no longer works for the government, but he still works to solve the nuclear waste problem at the head of a startup called Curio, founded in 2020 by brothers Yechezkel and Yehudah Moskowitz as part of their investment holding company, Synergos Holdings.

The brothers founded Curio to develop next-generation advanced nuclear reactors. After some research, they decided that there were already many companies innovating in this area, but much less competition to deal with the nuclear waste problem.

The United States generates approximately 2,000 metric tons of new nuclear waste per year, adding to the approximately 86,000 tons already generated. Reprocessing nuclear waste is one way to make it less radioactive, but there is only enough capacity in the world to reprocess 2,400 tons per year, and most of it is in France (1,700 tons) and in Russia (400 tons).

The ten-person pre-revenue startup is still in the very early stages of a long-term, capital-intensive build. But it aims to have a pilot facility operational in six years and a commercial nuclear waste reprocessing facility operational by 2035, McGinnis told CNBC.

The Curio commercial plant will have a capacity of 4,000 metric tons when fully constructed. It will cost $5 billion to build and it will be about the size of an NFL football stadium.

“We would take title to all 86,000 metric tons and the federal government and the public would never see this high-level radioactive material on their books again, we would bear the burden,” McGinnis said. “And we were taking trash and turning it into products and treasures. That’s our line of business.”

Ed McGinnis, CEO of Curio.

Photo courtesy Curio

Turning trash into treasure

Calling the fuel that comes out of conventional reactors waste is a misnomer, according to McGinnis, because only 4% of the potential energy value has been used. But it’s dangerous, with enough radiation to harm humans for about a million years.

Curio has developed a chemical process he calls NuCycle to turn nuclear waste into usable products, like fuel for advanced nuclear reactors, as well as isotopes that can be used for other functions, such as generating ingredients. to manufacture power sources for space missions, and power sources from tiny batteries.

The process reduces the amount of radioactive waste to less than 4% of what it started. This waste would only require about 300 years of storage, McGinnis told CNBC.

“There is essentially a treasure trove of products and commodities waiting to be extracted from this so-called waste.”

“There is basically a treasure trove of products and commodities waiting to be extracted from this so-called waste,” McGinnis told CNBC.

Right now, Curio is “refining and validating the chemistry,” McGinnis said. Some of that work involves collaborating with scientists at national labs across the country, but those partnerships are in their infancy.

Above all, Curio’s technology will be different from an existing process called PUREX (plutonium uranium reduction extraction), “which, among other things, separates and extracts plutonium in a pure stream”, which can be problematic in the context of the treaties of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

“We have a process where we never separate pure plutonium,” McGinnis said. “We’re never going to do that because we want to have an enhanced proliferation security process. We have built-in self-protection.”

Jim Geary, facility manager at the Waste Receiving and Processing Facility (WARP), overlooks a shipment of three TRUPACT shipping containers at the Hanford nuclear reserve June 30, 2005 near Richland, Washington. Each container contains 14 x 55 gallon drums of transuranic waste (TRU) that has been processed and will be sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.

Jeff T. Green | Getty Images News | Getty Images

One of the most difficult aspects of managing nuclear waste is convincing members of the local community to accept a facility in their backyard. “Public communication is very, very important,” McGinnis said.

Curio said he was in contact with several states to locate his facilities there, but declined to name them. But he thinks the economy would be helpful for many local communities. “A facility like ours would employ well over 3,000 full-time, high-paying jobs,” McGinnis said.

McGinnis also says negotiations for a recycling facility will be easier than those for a permanent repository.

“I led the efforts to meet with the states to try to convince them why they should accept materials that will sit there for 10,000 years. It’s a very, very difficult thing,” McGinnis said. “And I can understand why the NIMBY communities see this as a big deal. But again, it’s apples and oranges.” (NIMBY is an anacronym for “not in my garden.”)

What the independent experts say

The United States must explore new, innovative technologies to solve its nuclear waste problem, Steve Nesbit, the former president of the American Nuclear Society, told CNBC.

“When advanced reactors start, it makes more sense (to me) to develop and deploy recycling of these materials,” he told CNBC. It’s possible to recycle the waste and put some elements of that recycled waste back into the existing fleet of nuclear reactors, but “it’s better suited to some advanced reactor designs,” he told CNBC.

He said he “definitely knew” McGinnis, but added “Curio is keeping his cards pretty close to the vest, for now.”

Curio’s goals are formidable, said Ashutosh Goel, a Rutgers professor who has researched treating nuclear waste with a process called “immobilization.”

“Yes, what Curio is aiming for is ambitious. However, isn’t that the case with anything in nuclear energy?” Goel told CNBC. “If we’re serious about reducing the carbon footprint while meeting the nation’s energy needs, we can’t achieve that goal without nuclear power.”

Goal doesn’t know Curio or McGinnis personally but does know them professionally. “Ed is a well-known leader in the field of nuclear energy, thanks to his leadership roles with the US Department of Energy. Therefore, I expect positive things from Curio,” Goel said.

Curio takes smart steps early on, according to Ben Cipiti, a nuclear engineer at Sandia National Labs, who is working on a government grant proposal with Curio.

“I see Curio as having a good chance of making progress in this area because its approach uses lessons learned from the past,” Cipiti told CNBC. “They partner with national labs to leverage the latest research and development and the wide variety of expertise needed to succeed in this field.”

If Curio is successful, the work could be transformational for the industry as a whole.

“Once we get this fixed, IMHO I think Tesla is fiying the nuclear industry in a way that we’ve never seen, because it’s such a heavy drag on the nuclear industry – it affects public opinion, acceptance, the economy, investors,” McGinnis said. “So when we finally show a thoughtful, no-frills solution for the back-end, that’s when that the nuclear energy sector is taking off in my opinion.”