The idea of transporting nuclear materials can make people nervous. It’s easy to imagine worst-case accidents on the highway or involving a train. But stringent safety requirements, as well as coordination among federal agencies, international regulators, and state and local officials, help to ensure these shipments are made safely. This structure provides many layers of safety.
From time to time, the requirements are updated to address new information. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and U.S. Department of Transportation recently updated their requirements. The NRC is now amending ours to reflect those updates, as well as to make some changes we feel are needed based on recent experience. You can read the Federal Register notice on the proposed rule.
While the rules are being updated, the fact remains that nuclear materials are transported safely all the time. By far the majority of shipments involve small quantities of nuclear materials. Millions of these shipments are made each year and arrive at their destination without incident. Occasionally, the carrier might be involved in a traffic accident. But in decades of transporting nuclear materials, there has never been an accident that resulted in a radioactive release.
Smaller shipments must be made in compliance with DOT regulations for shipping hazardous materials. The greater the potential risk of the contents, the more stringent DOT’s packaging requirements are. The DOT regulations limit how much radioactivity can be transported in each package. That way, no transport accident involving these small shipments would pose a serious health threat.
But what about larger amounts of radioactive materials? What about spent nuclear fuel?
In addition to having to meet DOT requirements, more radioactive cargo such as spent fuel must meet NRC regulations for nuclear materials packaging and transport in 10 CFR Part 71. These regulations include very detailed requirements for shipping under normal conditions, as well as stringent tests to show the packages can withstand severe accidents. These are the regulations we are updating now.
If you would like to learn more about the transportation of spent fuel and radioactive materials, see our newly updated backgrounder.