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.
From 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.
Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation
It’s always great to hear people use words such as “effective,” “exemplary” and even “inspiration” to describe the job you’re doing. It’s even better when those people are your international peers, talking about such topics as the NRC’s response to the March 2011 Fukushima accident.
Five senior nuclear regulators from Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom, along with International Atomic Energy Agency staff, just spent a week examining our work. This Integrated Regulatory Review Service team is part of an IAEA program that independently reviews a country’s nuclear regulator. We greatly appreciate their putting so much time and effort into the visit. I oversaw the agency’s responses to the team, and I’m proud of how our staff earned such high marks.
The IRRS report talks a lot about our Fukushima work. It also discusses our response to a 2010 IRRS visit that looked in detail at how the NRC regulates nuclear power plants. The team reviewed our immediate response to the accident. They then looked at our ongoing effort to enhance U.S. reactor safety based on what the accident taught us. They concluded the NRC has “acted promptly and effectively … in the interests of the public health and safety in both the U.S. and Japan.”
The team said our Near-Term Task Force report was “a source of inspiration for many regulatory bodies worldwide.” They also looked at how we’ve inspected U.S. reactors on Fukushima-related issues. They called that work “exemplary.” We’re honored our approach to learning from Fukushima and acting on that knowledge is so well-respected. We also appreciate their noting there’s still more to do in working all the Fukushima-related changes into our regulations.
We’re pleased that our peers felt the NRC’s efforts have properly answered almost every 2010 recommendation or suggestion about how we oversee nuclear power. They also noted how well we’ve been learning from relevant events in non-nuclear industries. They also suggested we develop a more orderly process for a U.S. reactor to move from operation to decommissioning. We can always get better as an agency, so we’re going to see how best we can work on that suggestion.
The NRC understands how valuable peer review is, so we’ll continue to support IRRS missions worldwide. We’ll also work with the IAEA to see how additional visits to the U.S. might fit into our future schedule.