Information about the Safety of Transporting Nuclear Waste

Government and industry have a proven safety record in transporting highly radioactive materials in the United States. Since the early 1960s, the U.S. has safely conducted more than 3,000 shipments of spent nuclear fuel without any harmful release of radioactive material.

The following information is from the World Nuclear Organization:

  • About twenty million consignments of all sizes containing radioactive materials are routinely transported worldwide annually on public roads, railways 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.

About 20 million consignments of radioactive material (which may be either a single package or a number of packages sent from one location to another at the same time) take place around the world each year. Radioactive material is not unique to the nuclear fuel cycle and only about 5% of the consignments are fuel cycle related. Radioactive materials are used extensively in medicine, agriculture, research, manufacturing, non-destructive testing and minerals' exploration.

International regulations for the transport of radioactive material have been published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since 1961. These regulations have been widely adopted into national regulations, as well as into modal regulations, such as the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) Dangerous Goods Code.  Regulatory control of shipments of radioactive material is independent of the material's intended application.

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.

In 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-ton Type B casks carried by rail, each containing 20 tons of used fuel.


Radioactive Waste Shipments
Transportation Safety
Transportation System
Transportation Security
Emergency Planning and Response
Transportation Information
Radioactive Waste Shipments
  What are spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste?

Spent nuclear fuel – or “used” nuclear fuel – results from producing electricity at nuclear power plants or from operating other reactors such as research reactors. Nuclear fuel is considered “spent” when it no longer gives off enough energy (in the form of heat) to produce electricity efficiently. The fuel is most commonly in the form of solid ceramic pellets, with each pellet approximately the size of a pencil eraser, secured inside an assembly of strong metal tubes. The tubes containing the pellets are bundled together to form assemblies. These pellets, tubes, and assemblies are specifically designed and manufactured to contain radioactive materials during use in a reactor and during long-term storage. In addition, as a ceramic material, spent nuclear fuel pellets are solid — not in a liquid or gaseous form — and therefore, spent nuclear fuel will not spill, evaporate, burn, or explode.

Commercial spent nuclear fuel is now being temporarily stored in pools of water, above-ground vaults, or concrete or steel casks at power plants. Government-owned spent fuel from test or research reactors is stored at various DOE sites. Spent nuclear fuel will be transported to a repository in specially designed packages called “casks.”

High-level radioactive waste that would be disposed of at the Yucca Mountain repository is radioactive waste containing byproducts from past processing of spent nuclear fuel for defense needs or other radioactive material that requires permanent isolation. High-level radioactive waste resulting from defense programs is stored temporarily in underground tanks and vaults at government sites.

High-level radioactive waste will be solidified in glass (some waste has already been solidified), packaged in stainless steel canisters, and placed in shielded casks for transport to the repository for disposal.

  What is the safety record for transporting spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste?
  Government and industry have a proven safety record in transporting highly radioactive materials in the United States. Since the early 1960s, the U.S. has safely conducted more than 3,000 shipments of spent nuclear fuel without any harmful release of radioactive material. This safety record is comparable to the worldwide experience where more than 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel have been transported since 1970.
  How many shipments will there be to the repository?

The period for shipping Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) and High-Level Waste (HLW) to the repository could span up to 50 years, and the number of shipments in any given year would depend on a variety of factors. The material will be transported by rail in large shipping casks, or by truck in much smaller casks.

The estimated number of rail casks shipped would range from 190 to 317 per year, on trains carrying 3-5 casks. Annual truck shipments could range from 53 to 89 per year, with one cask per truck.

Transportation Safety
  How are transportation safety and security standards established?

The Department of Transportation (DOT) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) share primary responsibility for establishing standards for the safe transport of radioactive materials within the United States. These standards are based on international transport standards that are used to safely ship radioactive materials worldwide.

DOT standards cover packaging, transporting, and handling of radioactive materials, including labeling, shipping papers, placards, loading, and unloading. DOT standards also specify training needed for personnel who perform handling and transport of hazardous materials. The DOT, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), sets standards for emergency preparedness for carriers.

NRC establishes design and performance standards for packages that carry materials with higher levels of radioactivity, like spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. All shipments of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste to Yucca Mountain must use containers whose designs meet NRC certification requirements.

When transporting radioactive materials, DOE meets or exceeds all applicable standards set by DOT and NRC.

  What precautions does the government take in the transportation of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste?

Routing — DOT has established a process for selecting highway routes for radioactive materials. DOE will work with states through regional organizations, and with tribes through a government-to-government relationship, to identify rail and highway suites of routes, including alternative highway preferred shipping routes. All states and tribes can — and some states already have — designated “preferred” highway routes.

In the process for identifying rail routes, DOE has considered routes in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for a Geologic Repository for the Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste at Yucca Mountain. These routes are based on historical railroad practices and reflect operational input from railroad companies. DOE plans to work with rail carriers, states, and tribes through a collaborative process to identify and evaluate rail routes that will be used.

Inspections — Specially trained federal, state, or carrier inspectors perform equipment and radiological inspections before every shipment. Inspectors also ensure compliance with applicable safety standards. States may require inspections en route, and inspections are required at final destination points for truck shipments of spent nuclear fuel.

Security — To implement an effective security program for transportation, DOE is actively collaborating with DOT, NRC, DHS, and other agencies. DOE is also collaborating with international agencies and working groups; state, tribal, and local government representatives; industry associations; and technical advisory and oversight organizations. DOE’s security program includes physical security systems like alarms, sensors, armed escorts, and tracking devices; information and cyber security; materials control and accounting; personnel security, training, and management; and emergency response capabilities.

Tracking — DOE will coordinate in-transit operations, including tracking, security escorts, and communications. DOE will use a satellite tracking system similar to the TRANSCOM system currently used in other DOE transportation programs.

Notification of state and tribal officials — As required under DOE policy and the NWPA, state governors and tribal leaders, or their designees, will be notified in advance of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste shipments through their jurisdictions. Specific dates, times, and actual routes of shipments are safeguarded for security reasons. However, those with a need-to-know (such as state or tribal representatives, law enforcement and emergency response officials, and inspectors) will be informed of shipments before they enter a state or tribal land. All shipments will be closely coordinated with state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies.

Emergency preparedness — The federal government has its own experienced teams of emergency responders, and currently funds a number of emergency preparedness activities for state, tribal, and local responders. DOE has highly trained special response teams from eight regional offices available to assist state, tribal, and local safety officials.

Training — States and tribes have and will continue to receive federal support specifically for training in preparation for DOE nuclear materials shipments. DOE will provide technical and financial assistance to states and tribes for training public safety officials in procedures for safe, routine transportation and emergency response situations.

  What types of packages will be used to ship spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste to a repository?

DOE will use robust transportation packages called casks. Casks are typically made of stainless steel and metal shielding more than six inches thick to protect the contents and confine radiation in both routine transport operations and under severe accident conditions. All shipments to Yucca Mountain must be transported in casks certified by NRC. The NRC certification process requires that each transportation cask design must be analyzed or tested to meet the conditions of all of the following tests, in the given sequence:

  • A drop from 30 feet onto a hard, unyielding surface that is equivalent to a high-speed crash into a bridge abutment
  • A drop from 40 inches onto a shaft six inches in diameter
  • A fully engulfing fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes
  • Immersion under three feet of water

An undamaged version of the cask must also be able to survive immersion in the equivalent of 50 feet of water. Furthermore, casks designed for shipping spent nuclear fuel must be able to survive water pressure greater than 600 feet for 1 hour without collapse, buckling, or leaking.

The NRC utilizes state of the art computerized models, as well as scale-model and full-scale model tests, to determine whether cask designs meet NRC requirements for certification.

  Have actual casks been tested under real-life conditions?

DOE’s National Laboratories have conducted a variety of cask tests simulating real-life conditions.

Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico performed the following tests:

  • A flatbed truck loaded with a full-scale cask driven into a 700-ton concrete wall at 80 miles per hour
  • A rail car loaded with a full-scale cask driven into a 700-ton concrete wall at 80 miles per hour
  • A cask broad-sided by a 120-ton locomotive traveling 80 miles per hour
  • A transportation cask dropped 2,000 feet onto soil as hard as concrete — traveling 235 miles per hour at impact

In all of the Sandia National Laboratories crash tests, the casks survived intact and would have safely protected their contents with no release of radiation.

In Great Britain, an independent test by the Central Electricity Generating Board consisted of ramming a spent fuel cask with an unmanned locomotive at 100 miles per hour. The cask – which met international design standards that are essentially the same as U.S. standards – survived the test with only superficial damage.

  Could a transportation package protect its contents and prevent the release of radiation in case of fire?

Transportation packages are designed to protect their contents and prevent radioactive releases. To be certified by the NRC, a transportation cask must be proven, by analysis or test, to protect its contents if placed in a fully engulfing fire that burns for 30 minutes at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit.

Additional full-scale tests, scale-model tests, and computer analyses are used to evaluate the ability of transportation casks to prevent the release of radiation in case of fire. NRC has used data collected from large-scale, real-life fires to evaluate the impact such a fire could have if a nuclear waste shipment were involved. As a result, NRC has concluded that casks designed to meet its requirements would not release their contents.

Transportation System
  How will transportation routes to the repository be chosen?

DOE encourages and supports participation of program stakeholders to assist in the identification of a suite of national rail and highway routes for shipments to Yucca Mountain. DOE is working with states through four state regional groups to identify local highway and rail transportation routes in each region and will also interact with federally recognized tribal nations on routing issues. The process includes identifying rail and highway routes using routing criteria that reflect regional considerations, appropriate regulatory requirements, and industry and federal standards. DOE will continue its practice, to the extent appropriate, of coordinating the details of shipment routes and specific modes with states, tribes, utilities, and carriers.

After considering a range of alternatives, DOE has decided that the transportation system will utilize mostly rail shipments. Rail transportation has significant support from stakeholder organizations and offers operational and security efficiencies. DOE has also decided to use dedicated train service for rail shipments. Dedicated trains would transport only spent fuel or high-level radioactive waste and would provide better operational control and cost savings for DOE shipments to Yucca Mountain. DOE is working with the states and tribes to consider criteria for rail transport. Highway routing will likely be used where rail is not available.

Some shipments will require transport by truck over the national highway system. These will be “Highway Route Controlled Quantity” (HRCQ) shipments as defined by regulations of DOT. Commercial highway carriers for this material are required to use “preferred routes” that reduce time in transit. Preferred routes are interstate highways, designated interstate system bypasses and beltways, and alternative routes designed by states.

State and tribal agencies, following the rules in DOT regulations, may designate alternative highway routes through their jurisdictions. Key considerations for states and tribes in determining alternative preferred routes are minimizing radiological risk to the public and consultation with other affected jurisdictions. Factors to be considered include population density, time of day, and day of week.

  How will spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste be transported within Nevada to the repository?

Within Nevada, the majority of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste shipments will be by rail. DOE plans to construct a rail line to connect the Yucca Mountain repository site with an existing rail line in Nevada.

Before a rail line can be built, DOE must prepare an environmental impact statement in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to evaluate alignment options for the potential construction of a rail line. No construction of a rail line can begin until the NEPA process is complete.

DOE selected the remote Caliente corridor, about 320 miles long, within Nevada for the study of alignment options for the potential construction of a rail line. DOE expanded the scope of the Rail Alignment Environmental Impact Statement to incorporate the Mina corridor. The Mina corridor is about 280 miles long with 40 miles of existing rail line and would connect to an existing rail line at Wabuska, Nevada.

In its final environmental impact statement, DOE identified the Mina corridor as a nonpreferred alternative.

  How will DOE interact with interested parties as transportation decisions are made?

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) established a stepwise approach for making decisions related to the approval, licensing, operation, and eventual closure of the repository. DOE is committed to a similar stepwise approach to transportation planning.

DOE’s experience with transportation programs related to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, NM; foreign spent nuclear fuel, U.S. naval reactor fuel, and others has proven that interaction and collaborative planning with interested parties is critical to mission success.

Through a collaborative planning process, DOE is working with states, tribes, and other interested parties to develop specific policies and procedures and to make transportation decisions. The collaborative process will incorporate successful elements from transportation systems developed for other DOE programs.

Interactions with interested parties on the national level take place primarily through the Transportation External Coordination Working Group, whose membership includes representatives from

  • State, local, and tribal organizations
  • Police, fire, and medical professional and technical associations and unions
  • Industry
  • Federal agencies and oversight groups

DOE also interacts with individual parties, as appropriate, when specific issues of mutual concern arise.

  What are the specific plans for interactions with states and tribes?

DOE emphasizes cooperation with states and tribes in developing its transportation system, because states and tribes have the primary responsibility for the health and welfare of their citizens.

Four state regional groups anchor the collaborative process with the states:

  • Southern States Energy Board
  • Western Interstate Energy Board
  • Council of State Governments, Midwestern Office
  • Eastern Regional Conference of the Council of State Governments

DOE interacts frequently with these groups and others on other DOE shipping programs and relies on them to provide consolidated state input on various topics and to assist with transportation plans. Where appropriate, DOE will interact with individual states, or their designated state agencies, as specific issues of mutual concern arise.

DOE interacts with federally recognized tribes on a government-to-government basis. DOE will consider successful consultation and collaborative processes used by other federal agencies and will continue to work with tribal organizations along potential transportation routes throughout the planning, operational testing, and operations phases of the transportation program.

  Will communities know when to expect shipments of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste?
  As required under DOE policy and the NWPA, state governors and tribal leaders, or their designees, are notified in advance of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste shipments through their jurisdiction. Specific dates, times, and actual routes of shipments are safeguarded for security reasons. However, those with a need-to-know (such as state or tribal representatives, law enforcement, emergency response officials, and inspectors) are informed of shipments before they enter a state or tribal land. All shipments are closely coordinated with state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies for security purposes.
Transportation Security
  How will shipments of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste be protected from sabotage?

The same robust design and construction features that make transportation casks safe also limit their vulnerability to sabotage. DOE will coordinate all shipments with state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies, and shipments will be monitored around the clock through a satellite-based tracking system.

NRC standards address the physical protection of spent nuclear fuel in transit. DOE will meet or exceed these standards that provide for the following:

  • Notification to relevant governors and tribal leaders before transport begins
  • Special safeguard procedures for the shipper to follow in emergencies
  • Escort training on threat recognition, response, and management
  • Advance arrangements with law enforcement agencies along the route
  • Armed escorts to accompany the shipment
  • Escorts to maintain visual surveillance of the shipment at all times
  • Status reporting by the escorts every two hours
  • The capability to immobilize the cab or cargo-carrying portion of the vehicle (for highway shipments)
  • Protection of specific information about any shipment
  • Satellite tracking of shipments, with access to tracking information by appropriate federal, state, and tribal officials
Emergency Planning and Response
  How will public safety officials be prepared for an emergency involving a shipment of spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste?

In an emergency, state, tribal, and local governments are responsible for the safety of their residents and responding to accidents in their jurisdictions.

In accordance with Section 180(c) of the NWPA, DOE will provide technical and financial assistance to states and tribes for training public safety officials in procedures for safe, routine transportation and emergency response situations. DOE will apply the experience derived from existing emergency preparedness programs within the DOE and other federal agencies. DOE will also support exercise programs to test and validate state, tribal, and local officials’ transportation emergency response plans.

  Who will help state, local, and tribal safety officials respond to an accident involving spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste?

In the event of an accident, state, tribal, and local emergency responders would have federal resources available, if requested, to help them with emergency response activities. In addition, carriers have response programs and plans in place to assist local officials with emergencies. Specialty contractors are maintained by carriers to assist with response and recovery efforts, and carrier insurance defrays the costs of a response by state and local officials.

The federal government has its own experienced teams of emergency responders. DOE special-response teams from eight regional coordinating offices are available to assist with any transportation accident involving radioactive materials. These special-response teams assess the emergency situation, advise decision-makers on actions that could be taken, and provide expertise in assessment, area monitoring, air sampling, and exposure and contamination control.

  Who would pay for damages in the event of an accident resulting from the transportation of spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste?

In the unlikely event of an accident that results in a release of radioactive materials, any resulting damages would be covered under the Price-Anderson Act, which establishes a system of financial protection for the public in a nuclear accident, regardless of who causes the damage.

The Price-Anderson Act provides for indemnification of liability up to $10 billion to cover claims that might arise from an accident in which radioactive materials were released, or one in which an authorized precautionary evacuation occurred. If the damage from a nuclear incident appeared likely to exceed that amount, the Price-Anderson Act contains a congressional commitment to thoroughly review the particular incident and take whatever action is determined necessary to provide full and prompt compensation to the public.

In addition, motor carriers who transport nuclear materials will have a minimum of $5 million in private insurance coverage. This insurance coverage will be available in the event of an accident that does not involve the release of nuclear material or a precautionary evacuation. Rail carriers are self-insuring for accidents other than nuclear incidents or precautionary evacuations.

Transportation Information
  Where can I find more information about spent nuclear fuel, high-level radioactive waste, and the transportation of these materials?

Many opportunities exist for people to learn more about spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste issues, and about the transportation of radioactive materials. Access to scientific and technical information is available online through the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management website at www.ocrwm.doe.gov, and at public reading rooms located throughout the country.

DOE also operates a public information center in Pahrump, Nevada and provides a speakers bureau that arranges for project experts to speak at public events.

Citizens can discuss their concerns and receive answers to their questions about the Yucca Mountain Project by contacting:

U.S. Department of Energy
Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management
1551 Hillshire Drive
Las Vegas, NV 89134
(800) 225-6972

For more information on DOE’s transportation programs, contact:

Office of Logistics Management
Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management
U.S. Department of Energy
1000 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20585
(202) 586-9117

Transportation Resource Exchange Center
ATR Institute
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87106-4342
(877) 287-TREX (8739)

Other government agencies and facilities:

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Office of Nuclear Materials Safety and Safeguards
Washington, DC 20555
(301) 415-7800

U.S. Department of Transportation
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
Hazardous Materials Information Center
400 Seventh Street, SW
Washington, DC 20590
(202) 366-4488

U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Public Affairs
500 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20472
(202) 646-4600