Chapter 52: Predisposal of Radioactive Waste – Transportation – Part 1

This chapter was published on “Inuitech – Intuitech Technologies for Sustainability” on April 22, 2013.

Transport is an integral part of the nuclear fuel cycle. There are some 430 nuclear power reactors in operation in 32 countries but uranium mining is viable in only a few areas. Furthermore, in the course of over forty years of operation by the nuclear industry, a number of specialized facilities have been developed in various locations around the world to provide fuel cycle services. It is clear that there is a need to transport nuclear fuel cycle materials to and from these facilities. Indeed, most of the material used in nuclear fuel is transported several times during its progress through the fuel cycle.  Transport is frequently international and often over large distances.

Radioactive materials are generally transported by specialized transport companies. Slide1The term “transport” is used generally to refer to the movement of material between facilities, i.e. through areas outside such facilities. Most consignments of nuclear fuel material occur between different stages of the cycle, but occasionally material may be transported between similar facilities. When the stages are directly linked (such as mining and milling), it is sometimes advantageous to construct facilities for the different stages on the same site and no transport is then required.

According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA):  About twenty million consignments of all sizes containing radioactive materials are routinely transported worldwide annually on public roads, railways, air, and ships.  These use robust and secure containers.  At sea, they are generally carried in purpose-built ships.  Since 1971 there have been more than 20,000 shipments of used fuel and high-level wastes (over 80,000 tonnes) over many million kilometres.  There have been accidents over the years, but never one in which a container with highly radioactive material has been breached, or has leaked.

Nuclear fuel cycle facilities are located in various parts of the world and materials of many kinds need to be transported between them. Many of these are similar to materials used in other industrial activities. However, the nuclear industry’s fuel and waste materials are radioactive, and it is these “nuclear materials” about which there is most public concern.

Nuclear materials have been transported since before the advent of nuclear power over fifty years ago. The procedures employed are designed to ensure the protection of the public and the environment both routinely and when accidents occur. For the generation of a given quantity of electricity, the amount of nuclear fuel required is very much smaller than the amount of any other fuels. Therefore, the conventional risks and environmental impacts associated with fuel transport are greatly reduced with nuclear power.Slide2In the USA one percent of the 300 million packages of hazardous material shipped each year contain radioactive materials. Of this, about 250,000 contain radioactive wastes from US nuclear power plants, and 25 to 100 packages contain used fuel. Most of these are in robust 125-tonne Type B casks carried by rail, each containing 20 tonnes of used fuel.Slide3Although the safety record of these transports is excellent, they sometimes cause concern in the areas through which they pass.   For example, a number of countries have expressed particular concern about ships carrying radioactive waste passing through or close to their territorial waters.  Regulations are, therefore, needed not just to ensure that the chances of an accident, which could result in radioactive material being dispersed in the environment, are kept to a minimum, but also to ensure that the workers involved in transport — including those loading and unloading shipments as well as drivers/pilots — are protected.  Slide4These materials associated with the nuclear fuel cycle – from uranium ores to spent fuel and radioactive waste – but also radionuclides for nuclear medicine and research, and radioactive sources for industry and radiotherapy.

The Regulations govern the necessary packaging, shielding, labeling, and other precautions that must be taken when transporting various types of radioactive material, including tests that packages must undergo to prove that they can withstand possible accidents.  The requirements are graded according to the level of activity of the materials to be transported.  In general, more hazardous radioactive materials need more extensive and more robust packaging and stricter quality and administrative controls.

The objective of these Regulations is to establish requirements that must be satisfied to ensure safety and to protect persons, property and the environment from the effects of radiation in the transport of radioactive material. This protection is achieved by requiring:

  • Containment of the radioactive contents;
  • Control of external radiation levels;
  • Prevention of criticality; and
  • Prevention of damage caused by heat.

These requirements are satisfied firstly by applying a graded approach to contents limits for packages and conveyances and to performance standards applied to package designs, depending upon the hazard of the radioactive contents.  Secondly, they are satisfied by imposing conditions on the design and operation of packages and on the maintenance of packages, including consideration of the nature of the radioactive contents. Finally, they are satisfied by requiring administrative controls, including, where appropriate, approval by competent authorities.

In the transportation of radioactive material, the safety of persons and the protection of property and the environment are assured when these Regulations are complied with. Confidence in this regard is achieved through management system and compliance assurance programmes.

These Regulations apply to the transport of radioactive material by all modes on land, water, or in the air, including transport that is incidental to the use of the radioactive material. Transport comprises all operations and conditions associated with, and involved in, the movement of radioactive material; these include the design, manufacture, maintenance and repair of packaging, and the preparation, consigning, loading, carriage including in-transit storage, unloading and receipt at the final destination of loads of radioactive material and packages. Slide5A graded approach is applied in specifying the performance standards in these Regulations, which are characterized in terms of three general severity levels:

  • Routine conditions of transport (incident free);
  • Normal conditions of transport (minor mishaps); and
  • Accident conditions of transport.

The Transportation Regulations recommended by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are widely accepted as the global standard for the transport of radioactive materials.  In some cases these regulations are incorporated into national laws or regulations.  Other countries write their own regulations governing transport of radioactive materials, but make them consistent with the IAEA Regulations. Slide6Here is a brief overview of the US approach to radioactive waste transportation which is based on the Overview of High-Level Nuclear Waste Material Transportation by Energy Resources International Inc.


About 3 million packages (which represents 1 percent of the total packages shipped each year) of radioactive materials are shipped each year in the United States, either by highway, rail, air, or water. Regulating the safety of these shipments is the joint responsibility of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Department of Transportation (DOT). The NRC establishes requirements for the design and manufacture of packages for radioactive materials. The Department of Transportation regulates the shipments while they are in transit, and sets standards for labeling and smaller quantity packages.

The NRC oversees the safety of the transportation of nuclear materials through a combination of regulatory requirements, transportation package certification, inspections, and a system of monitoring to ensure that safety requirements are being met.

1.1        Package Certification:

1.1.1     Obtaining a Radioactive Material Package Certificate of Compliance:

The NRC must approve any package used for shipping nuclear material before shipment. If the package meets NRC requirements, the NRC issues a Radioactive Material Package Certificate of Compliance (CoC) to the organization requesting approval of a package.  Organizations are authorized to ship radioactive material in a package approved for use under the general license provisions of 10 CFR Part 71.

For a transportation package to be certified by the NRC, it must be shown by actual test or computer analysis to withstand a series of accident conditions.  The tests are performed in sequence to determine their cumulative effects on the package.

1.1.2     Process for New Certificates of Compliance:

To apply for a CoC to ship nuclear material, an organization would submit an application to NRC for review and approval. The application would contain information as described in “Standard Review Plan for Transportation Packages for Radioactive Material” (NUREG-1609) or the “Standard Review Plan for Transportation Packages for Spent Fuel” (NUREG-1617).  The application must address the safety and operational characteristics of the package, including design analysis for structural, thermal, radiation shielding, nuclear criticality, material content confinement, and the conditions listed. In addition the application must contain operational guidance, such as any testing and maintenance requirements, operating procedures, and conditions for package use.

1.1.3     Revision Process for Certificates of Compliance:

To modify a CoC, a CoC holder would submit a request to NRC with any necessary supporting technical information for NRC to review and approve, if appropriate.

1.1.4     Renewal Process for Certificates of Compliance

To renew a CoC, a CoC holder at the end of the five-year approval period, would submit a request to NRC with any necessary supporting information describing the capability of the package design to continue to meet technical requirements. After reviewing this information, the NRC would determine whether to grant a CoC renewal.

1.1.5     Transfer and Merger Process for Certificates of Compliance:

To transfer ownership of a CoC or to merge with another organization, a CoC holder would submit a request to NRC with any necessary supporting organizational information for NRC to review and approve the amendment.

1.1.6    Package Performance Study:

The Package Performance Study (PPS) involved benchmarking computer model results to actual drop tests performed on both full-scale and partial-scale spent nuclear fuel transportation (SNFT) casks, and the simulation of a full-scale rail transportation accident. The purpose was to demonstrate the robustness of the SNFT casks. Due to the uncertainty associated with the national strategy for nuclear waste disposal and the elimination of high level nuclear waste funds in the NRC budgets, the Commission has terminated the preparation for a simulated rail accident.

1.2     Shipping Requirements:

1.2.1     Materials Packages:

Before any shipment can occur, the shipper is required to review the package certificate of compliance (CoC) to determine if any testing or maintenance is required. The shipper may be required to check or change package seals and other components or perform leak testing. In addition, the shipper must take radiation measurements at specific locations on and around the package to make sure that the levels are below the required limits.

The shipper must also meet the Department of Transportation’s requirements for shipment of the nuclear material including route selection, vehicle condition and placarding, driver training, package marking, labeling, and other shipping documentation.

1.2.2    Spent Nuclear Fuel:

Certain specific requirements apply to shippers of spent nuclear fuel.

  • A shipper must use NRC-approved highway routes for transport of spent nuclear fuel;
  • The shipper must make sure that spent fuel is protected against radiological sabotage. Shippers who transport or deliver spent fuel to a carrier for transport are required to meet specific requirements that include:
    • Notifying NRC of the shipment;
    • Having procedures for addressing emergencies;
    • Having a communications center, having a written log of shipment events;
    • Making arrangements with local law enforcement agencies for shipments while en route, and
    • Using armed escorts in heavily populated areas.

The time and date of the shipment must be protected as sensitive safeguards information to guard against any act that could threaten the shipment.

1.3     Material Transportation Oversight:

1.3.1     How NRC Conducts Its Oversight Program:

a)      Safety Requirements:  Safety in the shipment of nuclear material is achieved by a combination of factors, including the physical properties of the nuclear material itself, the ruggedness of the container, and the operating procedures applicable to both the transportation package and the vehicle transporting the package;

b)      Materials Shipping Requirements:  NRC performs inspections to determine whether transportation package users have taken the appropriate package measurements to ensure radiation levels are not exceeded. NRC inspections also focus on whether casks have been properly inspected for certain specific criteria, such as leak-tightness, that bolts and other equipment are intact, and that the packages are safe for transport; and

c)       Safeguards (Security) Requirements:  For transportation of spent fuel, NRC performs inspections to determine that the spent fuel is physically protected against radiological sabotage.

1.3.2    Results of Oversight Program:

a)      Reports and Other Documents:  Results of our oversight of nuclear materials transportation are documented in NRC inspection reports.

Inspection reports, correspondence, and other information about the performance of fuel cycle facilities are available to the public on the agency’s document management system (ADAMS ). You can locate fuel cycle facility inspection report by searching for documents with a licensee’s name or document number; and

b)      Enforcement:  As part of our oversight process, NRC issues sanctions called enforcement actions to licensees who violate our regulations. These sanctions may include notices of violation, monetary fines, or orders to modify, suspend, or revoke a license or require specific actions because of a public health issue.


NRC is responsible for establishing physical protection requirements for SNF in transit.  Following the events of September 11, 2001, NRC imposed Interim Compensatory Measures (ICMs) and Orders on its licensees that resulted in additional security requirements to supplement existing regulatory requirements related to security for the transport of SNF in quantities greater than 100 grams. The order was issued to licensees who had shipped or received spent nuclear fuel within three years and who planned to ship or receive spent nuclear fuel in the foreseeable future.

In October 2010, the NRC published a proposed rule in the Federal Register that would amend its security regulations for transport of SNF. This proposed rulemaking would establish generically applicable security requirements similar to those previously imposed by Commission orders to licensees. The proposed rulemaking would establish the acceptable performance standards and objectives for the protection of spent nuclear fuel shipments from theft, diversion, or radiological sabotage.

The revised NRC regulations require that a shipper perform the following security-related actions for the transport of SNF:

  • Preplan and coordinate SNF shipments, including:
    • Provide instructions to the armed escorts for the transport campaign;
    • Preplan and coordinate shipment itineraries with the receiver;
    • Ensure written certification of transfer of custody of the SNF;
    • Make arrangements with local law enforcement authorities along routes to provide emergency response if necessary;
    • Obtain advance approval from NRC regarding road and rail routes, or any U.S. ports used for transport, in addition to the routing requirements specified in DOT regulations; and
    • Document all preplanning and coordination activities.
  • Provide advance written notification to the NRC in accordance with 10CFR 37.72.  In addition, provide advance notification to the governor or his designee for each State through which the shipment will transit. This notice must be made in writing seven days in advance of the shipment;
  • Establish a physical protection system that includes armed escorts to protect the SNF shipments. Armed escorts accompany the shipment at all times and are required to report on the status of the shipment to the movement control center at least every two hours;
  • Establish a movement control center to monitor and control shipments and to communicate with local law enforcement agencies. The control center must be manned continuously when a SNF shipment is in progress;
  • Develop contingency and response procedures to address threats, thefts, and radiological sabotage related to SNF in transit;
  • Equip transport vehicles and escorts with redundant communication capabilities that allow for communication between the transport vehicle, escort vehicle, the movement control center, and local law enforcement agencies;
  • Ensure that NRC-approved features are included in the transport vehicle that allow immobilization of the truck cab during highway transport or the cargo-carrying portion of the vehicle; and
  • Ensure that the shipment is continuously and actively monitored by a tracking system that reports to the movement control center.

Under 10CFR 73.38, the NRC establishes new requirements for licensees to establish an access authorization program that would apply to any individual. This program requires determination of individuals:

  • Who will have unescorted access to SNF in transit;
  • Responsible for implementing a licensee’s physical protection program, including armed escorts; and
  • With access to SNF shipment information that it’s considered to be Safeguards information.


While Federal regulations set by DOT and NRC govern SNF and HLW transport safety, State, local and Tribal governments have some authority over shipments that transit their jurisdictions. States cannot prohibit the transport of SNF and HLW through their jurisdictions, but States can enact laws that are not in conflict with Federal laws and that address areas that are not covered by the Federal regulations. States enforce the Federal transportation safety standards and have authority to determine driver qualifications, ensure safe operations of motor vehicles, and conduct inspection and enforcement activities.  Numerous States and local governments have enacted laws that govern the transport of SNF and HLW, as well as other radioactive or hazardous materials, through their jurisdictions. Since Federal law generally preempts State and local laws in this area, these regulations must be consistent with Federal laws or they will be subject to preemption by Federal law. Typical State laws address:

  • Registration and permit programs that may require the payment of registration or permit fees;
  • Inspection and enforcement activities for shipments that transit States;
  • Notification requirements to provide data for routing, planning and emergency response activities;
  • Financial liability in the event of an accident; and
  • Emergency preparedness training, planning activities and response to a radioactive materials accident. States may assess emergency response fees for shipments that transit their jurisdictions.

As of January 2010, twenty-seven States have enacted laws that require permits and/or registration fees for transport of SNF and HLW, and other radioactive materials. These fees are charged for SNF and HLW shipments, radioactive materials shipments, as well as the shipment of other hazardous materials. Such fees include annual permit or registration fees, vehicle fees, fees charged per shipment or per package of material shipped, and emergency response fees charged per package.

States can designate routes for the transport of SNF including highways in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Mexico, Tennessee and Virginia.

State, Tribal, and local governments, along with the Federal government and shippers, have a responsibility for emergency response and emergency preparedness activities.  Accordingly, various jurisdictions play various roles in emergency response and emergency preparedness.


  1. The World Nuclear Association;
  2. IAEA Regulations for the Safety of Transport of Radioactive Material;
  3. US Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and
  4. Overview of High-Level Nuclear Waste Material Transportation by Energy Resources International Inc.

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