U.S. nuclear power plants generated a record 809 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2019. While our nation’s reactors create massive amounts of clean energy, they also produce spent or used nuclear fuel that is securely stored at 76 reactor and storage sites across the country.
Despite being safely transported in the United States for more than half a century, many still believe spent nuclear fuel (SNF) is too dangerous to transport. But, in reality, it’s a well-coordinated process with a great track record—and we have the facts to prove it.
Here are 5 common myths about transporting spent nuclear fuel.
Myth: SNF can’t be safely transported
SNF is transported in the United States ALL the time. It’s moved by road, rail, and waterway and shipped in durable containers that are designed to withstand extreme transportation accidents. More than 2,500 SNF shipments have been transported around the country without any radiological incidents over the past 55 years.
The Department of Energy (DOE) requires detailed preparations for SNF shipments. This covers everything from the containers, crew, and drivers used for transport to identifying travel routes as well as coordinating with states and tribes along the way.
Myth: SNF container will explode in an accident
It’s virtually impossible for a SNF transportation container to explode. To meet DOE or Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) transportation requirements, SNF must be placed in a robust transportation container (also known as a transportation cask) that is designed to protect against all possible releases of radioactive material. The container walls are made of steel, lead, and other shielding materials that are 5 to 15 inches thick. The ends are encased in structures called impact limiters that absorb impact forces and protect the container from damage.
Transportation containers must pass a sequence of impact, puncture, fire and water immersion tests that cover more than 99.9% of all travel-related accidents. While it is highly unlikely a SNF transportation container will encounter these extreme situations, DOE has physically tested these packages and confirmed their performance.
See for yourself with this historical testing footage by our national labs.
Myth: A SNF transportation accident could spill “glowing green radioactive goo”
Spent fuel containers won’t spill “glowing goo,” simply because commercial SNF is actually a solid. It is made of small, ceramic uranium fuel pellets stacked up inside metal fuel rods. The fuel is a solid when it goes into the reactor and remains a solid when it comes out of the reactor.
When transported, SNF containers are tightly sealed to contain the radioactive materials. The robust structure and thick shielding ensures that SNF is safely contained both during normal conditions of transport, and during a potential transport accident. So, SNF does not glow, isn’t green and there is no goo.
Myth: Local emergency services are not capable of responding to a SNF transport accident
According to the NRC, the chances of a SNF container releasing radioactive material in a transportation accident is less than 1 in 1 billion. Despite these odds, DOE has created a Transportation Emergency Preparedness Program so that state, tribal, and local responders have access to the training and technical assistance needed to handle a transportation incident involving DOE-owned radioactive materials. With this training, emergency responders are capable of promptly responding to most SNF transport incidents. For ongoing DOE shipping campaigns, the agency provides funds to states and tribes to support continued training for emergency officials along active DOE shipping routes.
Communication is also required throughout the entire shipment process. It is a coordinated effort among several government agencies including the U.S. Department of Transportation, NRC, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, along with applicable state, tribal, and local agencies. The SNF transportation containers are thoroughly inspected prior to departure and strictly monitored along the route using communications centers and telemetric monitoring technology for tracking.
Myth: Transporting SNF exposes the public to high levels of radiation
While it’s impossible to block all radiation, the amount emitted from a SNF transportation container is very low and is lower than the background radiation that occurs naturally in the environment.
SNF transportation containers are designed to significantly limit radiation at the surface of the structure to low levels that meet regulatory requirements for safety. Even then, it is unlikely that an individual not associated with the transport of the SNF shipment, would ever be close to the package for a long period of time.
DOE is working with the U.S. Navy to design and test new cask, buffer, and escort railcars specifically for future large-scale transport of SNF. The Atlas railcar has 12 axles to support the size and weight of SNF transportation containers. Two buffer cars are used as spacing to separate the cask cars from the train cars carrying rail crews or shipment security.
These railcars utilize the most advanced designs and technologies available to minimize the possibility of train derailment. DOE expects to receive the Association of American Railroads’ (AAR) approval for the Atlas railcar design in 2022.