Updating Nuclear Materials Transportation Regulations

Michele Sampson
Chief, Spent Fuel Licensing Branch

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.

10cfrtwopartjpgFrom time to time, the requirements are updated to address new information. The International Atomic Energy Agency and U.S. Department of Transportation recently updated their requirements. The NRC just amended ours to reflect those updates, as well as to make some changes we felt were needed based on recent experience. You can read the Federal Register notice on the final rule, published June 12.

While the rules are revised periodically, 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. 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 just finished updating.

If you would like to learn more about the transportation of spent fuel and radioactive materials, see our backgrounder.

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

14 thoughts on “Updating Nuclear Materials Transportation Regulations”

  1. Thanks Chris. I guess I shouldn’t take the NRC to task or even attempt to hold them accountable for anything, especially putting public safety first and foremost. That mission statement of theirs, well, they really don’t mean it. Is there any point at which we should properly take care of this high level waste that is piling up all over our country?! Who will have the balls to stand up for our country and the public? Certainly not the NRC, they might be taken to court for trying to do the right thing. Yes Chris there is usually more resistance when you take a stand than in just sitting back and doing nothing. At least in Japan when all spent fuel pool cooling was lost they did not have their pools overloaded to three times their original capacity like those in the US. The threat of terrorism is I think very real these days and our overloaded spent fuel pools make juicy targets. Someone needs to stand up for the public. So I will just keep on pinging on the NRC to live up to their real reason for existence.

  2. It is interesting that you take the NRC to task over trying to remain unbiased regarding any waste storage reviews it might be asked to perform. And yet, I bet that you would be one of the first to call for any Commissioner to recuse him/herself were they shown to have taken up a past position on some issue that is counter to yours.

    In truth, the NRC’s approach is the best. If the NRC were to take up an official policy position regarding what it believes is the “safest” approach towards spent fuel disposal, any future decision it makes on the subject could be challenged in court by the side negatively affected by that decision. This would only serve to add additional delays towards deployment of a storage solution (and not to mention wasting tax payer money).

    The reality is that there is not one “safest” method of disposal. Many of the proposed methods can be implemented safely or not safely. It just depends on the actual details of implementation and how much money the country wants to spend.

    As the NRC reps have attempted to explain to you, and you seem to completely ignore, the subject of what disposal approach the country should take is the responsibility of Congress and the Executive Branch (i.e. DOE). The NRC’s sole role – mandated by law, mind you – is to determine whether the proposed approach is being implemented safely. It can only do that effectively if it keeps an open mind and limits it’s attention to the specific proposals put before it to review. I suspect that no amount of beratement of the NRC on your part will change that.

    Your beef is really with DOE. I wonder if they have a blog where you can post similar comments.

  3. Sorry, the safe, away-from-reactor storage of spent fuel is not just a “policy option”, it is a public safety and national security issue. Ignoring the growing spent fuel pool overloading and “constipation” problem at 93 sites in the US is not a “policy option”, it is a complete abrogation of your responsibility to put public safety first.
    When you do not take a stand you really do not stand for anything NRC.
    How can you say that you are an “independent” regulator? Do you even know the meaning of the word? You are more “dependent” or even “codependent” than “independent”. The NRC is not an agency either, you have become an agent of the nuclear industry, the White House, and Congress.
    The NRC is not a nuclear industry watchdog, you are industry’s lapdog!

  4. Thanks for the response Mr. McIntyre.
    Just Incredible
    It is just incredible that a federal agency with the sole mission of protecting public safety and health has no position on the proper storage of spent fuel. It is obvious to even the layman that getting this spent fuel shipped away from nuclear plant sites is the proper and safe thing to do. Allowing spent fuel “constipation” to occur at 93 nuclear sites all over this country is just grossly negligent!
    Since the NRC has a passive role with regard to establishing a centralized (away from populated areas) storage location for spent fuel, are you hiding the truth from us? If the NRC had an active role in demanding such a safe centralized location would that tip the hand of terrorists, for example, that storing all this spent fuel in overloaded spent fuel pools all across the country really poses a public safety and national security issue for the US?
    Of course I am suspicious because the NRC keeps stuff from us all the time. The NRC, alone among all agencies, has a special classification above confidential called “safeguards information” by which thousands of additional items are kept from the public.
    Recently some nuclear power plant flooding analyses results were kept from the public. Only the Corps of Engineers and the nuclear utility owners were allowed to attend these NRC meetings. This kind of secrecy erodes public trust.
    Nuclear is the only source of energy production that has failed to provide for a safe means to take care of the wastes generated from its use. And this is high level radioactive waste. This shameful foot-dragging and neutrality on such a significant safety issue has got to stop!

  5. The question you raise about whether spent fuel should be consolidated into a central storage facility or eventually disposed of in some place or manner is a policy question for Congress, the administration (Department of Energy) and ultimately the industry. The NRC, as the independent regulator, does not advocate one policy option over another. Our job is to ensure that whatever option chosen is implemented safely.

    The two potential applicants for a license to construct and operate a centralized storage facility are Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, Texas, and the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance in New Mexico. There have been several news reports about their intentions that you can find through Google.

    On your third question, following the 9/11 attacks, the NRC conducted several studies to assess the vulnerabilities of nuclear power plants and spent fuel pools to terrorist attacks. Here iare some Q&As that reference those studies: http://www.nrc.gov/security/faq-security-assess-nuc-pwr-plants.html#1 . Many of the mitigation strategies identified have since been incorporated into NRC regulatory requirements, and are even expanded upon in the context of natural phenomena in response to lessons learned from Fukushima. More general information about physical security of nuclear facilities is available here: http://www.nrc.gov/security/domestic/phys-protect.html .

    Dave McIntyre

  6. I so appreciate the opportunity to dialog with you Ms. Moderator.
    Will you provide the names of the potential applicants that have approached you with regard to a centralized interim storage facility. They ought to be recognized for their efforts to address a long-standing safety issue.
    You use the term “stand ready” to review applications submitted to the NRC. Of course I was hoping for an active role on your part not this passive one. Isn’t “Stand ready” a PC term for “Stand by” or even “Not taking a stand”?!
    Even the nuclear industry folks in this case have taken a strong stand and made a strong case for getting a centralized storage facility ASAP. As their regulator why are you standing by on such a critical public safety and national security issue?! Of all federal agencies you have the unique technical expertise to forecast just how devastating a terrorist attack on an overloaded spent fuel pool could be at any one of 93 sites across the US.
    Perhaps you already have performed such an analysis and it has been kept secret? At least let us know if you have analyzed this unlikely but dangerous scenario.

  7. As you note in your comment, the policy decisions related to spent fuel disposal do not lie with the NRC. However, we have met with potential applicants to provide information on our regulatory requirements and stand ready to review applications for centralized interim storage when they come in.

    Maureen Conley

  8. Thanks for the prompt informative response Ms. Conley.
    What is the NRC’s position on a centralized remote storage location for spent fuel in this country?
    Although Congress, the President, and the DOE are responsible for spent fuel storage and disposal, as you stated, in the interest of public safety, what has the NRC done to influence these entities to get moving on this critical safety issue?

  9. The responsibility for establishing national policy for storage and disposal of spent fuel lies exclusively with Congress and the President. The Department of Energy is responsible for its implementation. Spent nuclear fuel shipments from the NRC-licensed nuclear power reactors over the past few years have been limited to a few rods or assemblies for research or testing. The NRC’s regulations in Part 71 also apply to shipments of fresh fuel to the power reactors and of spent fuel from research reactors. Hundreds of shipments here in the U.S. and abroad have safely been completed using NRC-reviewed packages for these types of fuel.

    Maureen Conley

  10. The spent fuel pools have been reracked/reconfigured, are filled to the brim and are holding more spent fuel than they were originally designed.
    To make matters worse, the NRC put the cart before the horse when they allowed the industry to use high burn up fuel, before having a real understanding on how this fuel will behave in continued storage and transportation.
    There needs to be a ban on production of nuclear waste until there is scientific evidence/proof that the waste will be safe and that there is a permanent location to store it.
    Shipping nuclear waste via highway or rail to temporary sites is ridiculous.

  11. For the public it would be helpful to have reports of the worse shipping accidents that have occurred. I know of one but must of being many because of money spent on newer packaging.

  12. Great questions all!

    It would also be good to know what casks were used for what types of storage since far too many casks are having problems and N☢ cask has been approved for High Burn-Up Fuel …

    High Burn-Up fuels and the problems generated by allowing its use:

    ☢ Issues with dry cask storage for San Onofre Nuclear (Waste) Generating Station https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLr0WR5oSjU&feature=em-share_video_user 

  13. Thanks for the update.
    Just how many spent fuel shipments have been each year in the US since the year 2000? How many of these spent fuel shipments were necessary to remove spent fuel from the 93 nuclear sites in the US? How many of these shipments supported either a temporary or permanent, centralized, and remote storage location? I know getting all this spent fuel removed from the backyards of millions of people must be a very high NRC priority. Especially so with the rise in international terrorism. Thanks.

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