REFRESH — Transporting Spent Nuclear Fuel: How Do We Know It’s Safe?

Mark Lombard
Director, Division of Spent Fuel Storage and Transportation

refresh leafAs the country wrestles with how to manage the highly radioactive fuel left over from generating nuclear power, one question often comes up: “how do we know we can transport it safely from reactor sites to other locations for storage, testing or disposal.” For one thing, we periodically assess the risks. For another, spent fuel shipments are strictly regulated and have not released any radioactive materials since they began more than 30 years ago.

Our most recent risk assessment, published in 2014, confirmed that NRC regulations for spent fuel transport are adequate to ensure safety of the public and the environment. As more data become available and computer modeling improves, these studies allow the NRC to better understand the risks.

Both the NRC and the U.S. Department of Transportation oversee radioactive material transport. DOT regulates shippers, vehicle safety, routing and emergency response. The NRC certifies shipping containers for the more hazardous radioactive materials, including spent fuel.

To be certified, a container must provide shielding, dissipate heat and prevent a nuclear chain reaction. It must also prevent the loss of radioactive contents under both normal and accident conditions. Containers must be able to survive a sequence of tests meant to envelope the forces in a severe accident. These tests include a 30-foot drop onto an “unyielding” surface (one that does not give, so the cask absorbs all the force) followed by a 1,475-degree Fahrenheit fire that engulfs the package for 30 minutes.

The 2014 Spent Fuel Transportation Risk Assessment modeled the radiation doses people might receive if spent fuel is shipped from reactors to a central facility. The study found:

  • Doses along the route would be less than 1/1000 the amount of radiation people receive from background sources each year
  • There is a 1 in 1 billion chance that radioactive material would be released in an accident
  • If an accident did release radioactive material, the dose to the most affected individual would not cause immediate harm

The Spent Fuel Transportation Risk Study examined how three NRC-certified casks would behave during both normal shipments and accidents. It modeled a variety of transport routes using population data from the 2000 census, as updated in 2008. It used actual highway and rail accident statistics. It considered doses from normal shipments to people living along transportation routes, occupants of vehicles sharing the route, vehicle crew and other workers, and anyone present at a stop. And it used state-of-the-art computer models.

The 2014 study builds on earlier studies of transportation risks. It uses real-world data and equipment in place of generic designs and conservative assumptions. The first study, done in 1977, allowed the NRC to say that its transport regulations adequately protect public health and safety. Other studies done in 1987 and 2000 found the risks were even smaller than the 1977 study predicted. Together with analyses we perform on major transportation accidents, these studies give the NRC confidence in the safety of spent fuel shipments.

For more information on how the NRC regulates spent fuel transportation, click on our backgrounder.

REFRESH is an occasional series where we revisit previous posts. This originally ran in September 2013



Author: Moderator

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

9 thoughts on “REFRESH — Transporting Spent Nuclear Fuel: How Do We Know It’s Safe?”

  1. It’s great to be able to say that in 30 years there have been no safety incidents but people don’t truly feel reassured by that because there is always the one-in-a-million chance that something catastrophic could happen. But that applies to all areas of life. The fact is that no one transports this spent fuel without due care and attention – there is more information about that on this site . The way to bring down the risk further is to decrease the reliance on nuclear power by developing viable alternative energy sources.

  2. Yes thanks Dan & Maureen for all the reassurances, I am now getting that warm fuzzy feeling about this stuff. The Navy does it right, civilians do it wrong. Nuclear power should have never been turned over to capitalists! The Navy is handling its waste properly. The civilian nuclear industry and the regulator that is in bed with them are letting this dangerous stuff pile up all over this country. It resides in the backyards of millions of people. And much of it sits, not in safer transportation casks, but in open overloaded spent fuel pools. Yet the NRC washes its hands of this dangerous safety issue. The NRC is waiting for others to act. Ever hear of the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns”!?! Of course it will just be the public that gets burned, no big deal!

  3. Thank you for bringing out that very pertinent fact, Ms. Conley. In the history of the naval nuclear propulsion program, there have been over 3000 shipments of spent cores across our highways – all without incident. That’s real-world experience….that’s more than just a discussion of the nebulous concept of “safe,” to which the participants are allowed to apply their own definitions, depending on their world-view.

  4. Spent fuel moves around the country fairly routinely. The majority is spent fuel from the Naval Propulsion program and spent research and test reactor fuel that is brought back to the U.S. from abroad.

    Maureen Conley

  5. Please stop touting the safe transportation of high level waste when there is no place to send it?! All that waste sits in the backyards of millions of Americans. How utterly irresponsible is that!

  6. See, this is nuclear waste materials is owned and produced by a private entity. It’s not even partially owned and controlled by the federal government. So why does a US government regulator become the public relation spokesperson on nuclear waste issues? Can’t the government wait to open your mouth until you actually own and control the material? Why aren’t the owners of this waste the primary spokesmen…the public know these are the guys in control to the waste. We hold you businesses and real owners responsible!!! You made it, you bury it?

    When the government speaks for a private entity you are lending the government’s credibility to a private businesses or the nation is consuming our credibility for a private business. These businesses hate your guts and are fighting the government tooth and nail.

    You are doing the same thing on the plant operational side. The US government is increasingly lending our credibility…our nation’s credibility…disproportionally on a specific industrial sector. The NRC is increasingly becoming the nuclear industry’s plant public relation spokesman. You are excessively promoting the industry. We focus on blaming the government when a private business fails cause that is the only people we see and hear in this? The nuclear industry and the plants knows the liabilities of explaining and defending themselves publically. Cause then the public holds them accountable for what they say or neglect to say and do. The safest thing for these nuclear company’s is just to say as little as they can. Then never risk their own credibility unless they are forced too. They never volunteer to be openly accountable, democratic and transparent…

    The government has an infinite reservoir of credibility, so the NRC becomes/defaults into the promotor public relation spokesman for all the nuclear industry and nuclear plants. Why doesn’t the US government become the primary promotor public relation spokesman of all corporations and businesses against the weak and the poor? Is that a upside-down government or what?

    Let the giant US government take the hit of their credibility for the nukes, my credibility and your credibility and the US governments credibility. I just want to know what our government gets for this favor? Remember most these giant corporations and plant employees have very little respect for their great nation in the bowels of their corporate offices and nuclear plants. They spend the majority of their high income lives trying to tear down and speak down the US government in any way they can. Our government. Your neighbor’s government. My government!

    I live in the greatest nation on the planet! My state I am not so sure.

    Mike Mulligan
    Hinsdale, NH

  7. Good article but ONLY if you are happy with the “1 in 1 billion chance that radioactive material would be released in an accident.”

    Anybody want to venture a guess of what the odds against a triple meltdown at Fukushima? I bet it was far higher than 1 in 1 billion, yet not only did it happen but it is still “Happening.”

    This is what make nuclear far different from other “accidents” and why so many are so skeptical of everything about Nuclear since the nuclear industry continues to fight every safety upgrade as unnecessary, and far too often the NRC grants them a “pass”!

  8. Excellent points. However, there is one additional regulatory test per 10 CFR §71.73 that the package is to be dropped onto a fixed, 6-inch diameter steel bar in the worst orientation after a 30-ft free drop prior to being exposed to the engulfing 30-minute 1,475 F fire event. The puncture bar drop test is to strike any point of the package, including any of the damage sustained from the 30-ft free drops. Following all of these tests, the package cannot leak any of the radioactive material contents to the environment or affect public health and safety. As noted in this post, radioactive materials, including spent fuel, have been safely transported world-wide for over 30 years without ever releasing their contents with packages that meet these regulatory requirements.

  9. How do we know its safe?? Is that a loaded question? We know it in fact ISN’T safe, because the spent fuel being a million times more radioactive than fresh fuel, wasn’t safe even when NOT being transported! What a bunch of flim flam artists. NO NUKES. PS- did ya hear the one about YET ANOTHER quake hitting Fukushima today?

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