Transport of Radioactive Materials
When used fuel is unloaded from a nuclear power reactor, it contains: 96% uranium, 1% plutonium and 3% of fission products (from the nuclear reaction) as well as a small amount of transuranics.
Used fuel will emit high levels of both radiation and heat and so is stored in water pools adjacent to the reactor to allow the initial heat and radiation levels to decrease. Typically, used fuel is stored on site for at least five months before it can be transported, although it may be stored there long-term.
From the reactor site, used fuel is transported by road, rail or sea to either an interim storage site or a reprocessing plant where it will be reprocessed.
Used fuel assemblies are shipped in Type B casks which are shielded with steel, or a combination of steel and lead, and can weigh up to 110 tonnes when empty. A typical transport cask holds about 6 tonnes of used fuel.
According to the NRC, about 2,400 metric tons of used nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear power reactors have been transported in the United States between 1979 and 2007, in 1,554 shipments. Most of the used fuel was shipped by rail. As a result of robust transportation container design and stringent safety measures, all these used fuel shipments have been safely completed with no harmful release of radioactivity or any injuries, fatalities or environmental damage resulting from the radioactivity of the cargo.
The Agencies: Who Does What?
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an independent agency created by Congress. Its mission is to regulate the nation’s civilian use of radioactive materials in a way that protects public health and safety and the environment. The NRC regulates commercial nuclear power reactors, nuclear fuel cycle facilities and medical, academic, and industrial uses of nuclear materials. The NRC also regulates packaging for the transport, storage, and disposal of nuclear materials and waste, and licenses the export and import of radioactive materials.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) coordinates with the NRC to set rules for the packaging of nuclear materials. DOT also works with the NRC and affected States to regulate their transport. DOT regulates carriers, sets standards for routes, and is responsible for international agreements on the transport of all hazardous materials.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is a forum for scientific and technical cooperation in the nuclear field. Part of the United Nations, the IAEA sets global regulations in many areas of the nuclear industry. IAEA’s regulations for materials packaging and transport serve as a model for the United States and other nations.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible by law for disposal of spent fuel from the nation’s nuclear power reactors.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
The U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is responsible for issuing regulations for the packaging of spent fuel (and other large quantities of radioactive material) for transport that provide for public health and safety during transport (Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations (10 CFR) Part 71, “Packaging and Transportation of Radioactive Waste,” dated January 26, 2004). In September 1977, the NRC published NUREG-0170, “Final Environmental Statement on the Transportation of Radioactive Material by Air and Other Modes,” which assessed the adequacy of those regulations to provide safety assurance. In that assessment, the measure of safety was the risk of radiation doses to the public under routine and accident transport conditions, and the risk was found to be acceptable. Since that time there have been two affirmations of this conclusion for spent nuclear fuel (SNF) transportation, each using improved tools and information that supported the earlier studies. This report presents the results of a fourth investigation into the safety of SNF transportation. The risks associated with SNF transportation come from the radiation that the spent fuel gives off, which is attenuated—but not eliminated—by the transportation casks shielding and the possibility of the release of some quantity of radioactive material during a severe accident. This investigation shows that the risk from the radiation emitted from the casks is a small fraction of naturally occurring background radiation and the risk from accidental release of radioactive material is several orders of magnitude less.
The National Academy of Sciences Report: Going the Distance?
The Safe Transport of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste in the United States
An important public concern about the high-level radioactive waste disposal program is safety during shipment of the wastes. Environmental groups have used catch phrases such as Mobile Chernobyl and No Fukushima Freeways in the hope of negative public reactions about the safety of transportation of nuclear waste. They have initiated campaigns to attempt to convince people that they will personally be exposed to the risks of transportation and have encouraged letter-writing campaigns to members of Congress in attempts to stop shipments, going so far as to urge teachers to have their students write to Congress. One tactic used was to intimate that nuclear waste transportation would have a negative effect on personal property values. Of interest, it is a straightforward matter to calculate the impact of the addition of the shipments that were planned to be made to Yucca Mountain on the overall amount of hazardous and radioactive materials shipped each year. Using the projected amount of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste shipments from the Yucca Mountain Final Environmental Impact Statement, 130 train shipments of three casks per train and forty-five truck shipments annually, and statistical information from the United States Economic Census, it is easily shown that those shipments would increase the percentage of hazardous waste shipments by 0.0001 percent, and they would increase the percentage of radioactive material shipments by 0.6 percent. The obvious conclusion to be drawn is that the public generally must not be aware of the existing hazardous material shipments and the attendant risks; almost 79 percent of the current hazardous materials shipments by ton weight are flammable liquids, as opposed to the solid, encased, spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. Read more...
Regular NRC Safety Studies