Materials – the stuff of which everything is made. You might not give much thought to the materials around you: the metal in the door of your car, the plastic used in airplane windows, or the steel from which elevator cables are made. Yet, in each of these cases, the selection of appropriate materials is critical to our safety.
Systems that transport and store spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive substances are made of a variety of materials. All of them are reviewed to confirm that those systems can protect the public and environment from the effects of radiation. The NRC does not dictate what materials are used. Rather, the NRC evaluates the choice of materials proposed by applicants that want NRC approval of systems to transport or store radioactive substances. We typically refer to these substances as radioactive materials, but that might make this discussion much too confusing.
What makes a material “appropriate” to transport and store radioactive substances depends on a number of factors.
First, materials must be adequate for the job. In other words, the mechanical and physical properties of the materials have to meet certain requirements. For example, the steel chosen for a transportation canister has to withstand possible impacts in a transport accident. Neutron-absorber materials need to block the movement of neutrons to control nuclear reactions in spent nuclear fuel.
Next, when making complex metal system, parts often are fused together by partially melting, or welding, them in a way that ensures that the joints themselves are adequate for the job. It may not be obvious, but during the welding process, the welder is creating a new material at the joint with its own unique properties. That’s why the NRC looks at how this is done, including the selection of weld filler metals, how heat is controlled to ensure good welds, and the use of examinations and testing to verify that no defects are present.
Finally, the NRC considers how materials degrade over time. In other words, we must take into account a material’s chemical properties – how it reacts with its environment. We’re all familiar with how iron rusts when it gets wet or how old elastic materials (e.g., rubber bands) become brittle. Often such degradation is not important. But sometimes it can cause concern. Thus, materials must be selected based on their present condition and their projected condition throughout their lifetimes.
Best practices for appropriately selecting materials and the processes used to join them often can be found in consensus codes and standards. These guidelines are typically developed over many years of experience and through industry-wide and government agreement. But such guidelines may not cover all aspects of material selection. So we also rely on both historical operating experience and the latest materials testing data.
The NRC has a team of materials experts that reviews every application we receive for approval of spent fuel storage and transportation systems. These experts must be satisfied that every material and the processes used to join them are up to the job. The materials review is one part of a comprehensive review the NRC does on every application. We will focus on other parts of our reviews in upcoming blog posts.