National Nuclear Security Administration

NNSA funds innovation in radiological security transport containers

July 18, 2018

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An NNSA team recovers a cesium-137 self-shielded irradiator from a hospital in Houston while using a 435-B Type B container.
An NNSA team recovers a cesium-137 self-shielded irradiator from a hospital in Houston while using a 435-B Type B container.

All shipments of radioactive materials, whether from private industry or government sites, must be packaged and transported according to strict federal regulations. These regulations protect the public, transportation workers, and the environment from potential exposure to radiation.

The packaging required is determined by the type of material to be shipped and its level of radioactivity. Depending on these factors, two categories of containers are used.

Type A containers are used to protect radioactive materials with high-activity rates by maintaining sufficient shielding under conditions normally encountered during transportation. These packages are usually used to transport medical and industrial products.

Type B containers are used to transport materials that exceed the radioactivity limits to safely use Type A packaging. The vessel design must demonstrate the ability to withstand both normal and hazardous shipping conditions, while still maintaining content and package integrity. Shippers use this type of package to transport materials that would present a radiation hazard to the public or the environment if there was a significant release.

In 2004, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission revised its certification requirements for Type B packaging to match more stringent international standards. This decision phased-out several Type B container designs, resulting in a shortage of receptacles certified to ship radiological devices containing Category 1 and Category 2 level sources.

NNSA’s Off-site Source Recovery Program’s (OSRP) previously used the now phased-out Type B containers in approximately 80 percent of sealed source and device recoveries involving high-activity (Category 1 and 2 quantities) Cesium-137 and Cobalt-60. The Office of Radiological Security (ORS), which oversees ORSP recognized that the shortage could impede recovery of radioactive materials.

Additionally, the cavity size of the remaining compliant Type B packages was often too small to accommodate the radiological devices registered with OSRP for recovery and disposal. With the new regulations in place, there were few remaining certified containers available with the capacity to execute OSRP’s work, and these were increasingly expensive to lease.

In light of these constraints, ORS evaluated the range of high-activity devices that are likely to become disused in the coming years and funded new container designs to help alleviate the transportation constraints. This includes a new leak-tight Type B container designed to safely and efficiently transport a variety of high-activity devices, such as disused blood or research irradiators, that are completely contained or self-shielded.

The new transportable design can be easily moved using a standard two-axle vehicle because it is relatively lightweight, less than 5,000 pounds when empty. This new 435-B container design allows OSRP to make recoveries in constrained and heavily congested locations. The container can also be used abroad where movement of oversize or overweight shipments is difficult or prohibited.

In March, OSRP’s 435-B Type B container completed its first recovery of risk-significant radioactive sources. As part of the Cesium Irradiator Replacement Program, OSRP successfully recovered a Cesium-137 self-shielded irradiator from the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston.

NNSA’s OSRP program was awarded the 2018 Richard S. Hodes Award on March 19. Presented by the Southeast Compact Commission Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management, the award recognizes the contribution of the new 435-B Type B containers toward radioactive source recovery and disposal efforts.

The program is fabricating a second Type B container design, called the 380-B. The new design is meant to be a streamlined product that will address the costs and challenges associated with radioactive material transport of devices that cannot be shipped in the 435-B. The 380-B will be delivered in June 2019. 

For more information about NNSA’s Off-site Source Recovery Program’s (OSRP), please contact the Office of Public Affairs (202) 586-7371.