Report: Nuclear Waste Transport Considered Safe; Challenges Remain

There are no fundamental technical barriers to the safe transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste in the United States, but a number of challenges must be addressed, according to a Feb. 9 report from a committee of the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC).

The NRC called separate, independent study on the security of such shipments, saying that it was unable to make this examination because needed information was classified or otherwise restricted.

More attention needs to be paid to understanding and managing the "social" risks involved in transporting these materials -- risks that have potential impacts such as lower property values or reduced tourism along shipping routes, for example.

The NRC conducted the study to meet the need for an independent examination of the risks and key concerns associated with the transport of spent fuel and high-level waste. Shipments of these materials in the United States will increase dramatically if the Department of Energy opens a proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. Spent fuel and high-level waste would be shipped there from more than 70 sites in 31 states, and most of these shipments would likely pass through or near major metropolitan areas. Shipping may also increase if the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) develops a spent fuel recycling facility at another site, or if the commercial nuclear industry constructs a facility to store spent fuel until Yucca Mountain opens.

Responding to a request from Congress, the committee also assessed how DOE currently selects routes for shipping spent fuel from research reactors between its facilities in the United States. DOE's procedures for selecting these routes appear to be adequate and reasonable, the committee concluded, noting that the department has considered risk assessments as well as advice from affected states and tribal nations.

The committee examined two types of radiological risks -- those arising from normal transport and those from accidents during shipping. The main radiological risk during normal transport is from the low levels of radiation emitted from packages loaded with spent fuel or high-level waste, since no shipping package can block radiation entirely. The report presents a number of comparisons between this risk and other common sources of radiation exposure.

Releases of radioactive materials from shipping packages during accidents are very unlikely given the packages' robust construction and the strict regulations for transporting them, the committee said. However, recent research suggests that a very small number of extreme accident conditions involving fires of very long duration might compromise the packages (see the report's Section 2.2.3, Historical Accident Reconstructions, and Section 2.4, Critical Assessement of Package Perfomrance, for additional information on the research. The report can be viewed by clicking the link at the end of the article). More analysis is needed to understand how packages behave under these conditions and to inform possible regulatory or operational changes. Transportation planners should survey routes in advance of shipments to identify and mitigate hazards that could lead to such accidents.

Transportation planners also should establish formal mechanisms for obtaining advice on managing social risks, the report says. For example, DOE should add experts on social risk to one of its existing advisory groups.

In addition to examining risks, the report provides findings and recommendations on operational issues related to the transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. While the recommendations focus on DOE's Yucca Mountain program, they apply to any program for shipping large amounts of these materials.

DOE should identify and make public its preferred routes to Yucca Mountain as soon as possible to support state, tribal and local planning -- especially efforts to prepare emergency responders. The department should consult with states and tribal nations in selecting these routes. DOE also should immediately begin to execute its responsibilities for preparing emergency responders.

The committee strongly endorsed DOE's decision to ship spent fuel and high-level waste to Yucca Mountain using mostly trains rather than trucks, since rail transport would reduce both the overall number of shipments and their interactions with people along routes. It also strongly endorsed the plan to use "dedicated" trains, which would carry only spent fuel or high-level waste and no other freight. To implement its "mostly rail" option, however, DOE must first build a 319-mile rail line in Nevada. If the department fails to complete this step before the repository opens, it should not resort to large-quantity truck shipments as an interim measure, the committee said.

Shipping older fuel to Yucca Mountain first would provide an additional margin of safety because it generates less heat and radiation, the report says; it would also allow DOE to gain experience and build confidence. However, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act does not give DOE authority to decide the order in which fuel will be shipped from operating plants. The department should negotiate with commercial spent fuel owners to prioritize the shipment of older fuel, and if negotiations do not succeed, Congress should consider changes to the law.

Federal agencies should develop and disclose clear, consistent, and reasonable criteria for protecting sensitive information about shipments, and they should commit to openly sharing information that does not require such protection, the NRC recommended. For example, before making a shipment, it would be appropriate to share general information such as possible routes, the material to be shipped, and general shipping time frames. More-detailed information -- specific routes, times, and responses to any incidents, for example -- could be disclosed afterward.

DOE's Yucca Mountain transportation program might not succeed unless it is restructured to give it more planning authority and flexibility, the committee said. Though it was beyond the scope of the study to recommend a particular organizational structure for the program, the committee suggested that Congress and the secretary of energy evaluate three possible ways to reorganize it: as a quasi-independent organization within DOE, as a quasi-government corporation, or as a fully private organization operated by the commercial nuclear industry.

To view the report, Going the Distance? The Safe Transport of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste in the United States, and information to order the document, go to

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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