Is transporting radioactive waste dangerous?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher issue "Managing Nuclear Waste" by Jennifer Weeks on January 28, 2011


Because spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste are extremely radioactive, some observers worry that transporting them poses a health risk for people who handle fuel casks or live along transport routes. Although the United States has more than 40 years of experience with shipping radioactive waste, opening a repository or reprocessing spent fuel would involve moving much larger quantities over thousands of miles.

Utilities routinely ship spent nuclear fuel among storage facilities at different plants. They have made more than 3,000 shipments of commercial spent nuclear fuel by road and rail since the mid-1960s. And DOE has moved many tons of defense nuclear waste as it cleans up nuclear weapons production sites. About a dozen minor accidents have occurred during these shipments, none of which released radioactivity to the environment. [Footnote 12] A 2006 study by the National Research Council concluded that there were “no fundamental technical barriers to the safe transport of spent nuclear fuel and [high-level waste] in the United States.” [Footnote 13]

But some groups worry that large-scale transport of radioactive waste will increase risks of accidents or low-level exposures. In November 2010 the American Public Health Association (APHA) called spent-fuel transportation “a national public health threat that is largely preventable.” The group advocates long-term fuel storage at reactors until a permanent repository is ready. [Footnote 14]

“The potential hazards and risks are huge, so minimizing transport makes sense. It just takes one accident, and then everyone will be pointing fingers and asking how we got to this point,” says Amy Hagopian, a professor of global health at the University of Washington in Seattle who reviewed the statement for APHA.

Spent fuel is transported in massive steel casks that measure four to eight feet in diameter, have walls five to 15 inches thick and contain materials that shield the environment from radioactivity. One cask used for shipment by truck holds up to nine bundles of fuel rods and weighs up to 25 tons; a rail shipment cask holds several dozen bundles and can weigh 150 tons. Casks must withstand a range of forces in testing, including a 30-foot drop onto reinforced concrete, a 40-inch drop onto a steel spike, a 30-minute fully engulfing fire and submersion under water for eight hours. [Footnote 15]

In its 2006 study the National Research Council recommended steps to improve transportation security, including analyzing risks of long-lasting fires that might breach a fuel cask. Researchers were worried about scenarios like a 2001 disaster in which a freight train carrying flammable and toxic chemicals derailed in a tunnel under downtown Baltimore, igniting a fire that burned for five days. [Footnote 16]

In response the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sought a study that concluded the likelihood of such accidents was extremely low and that rail-shipment casks for spent fuel would not release dangerous levels of radiation even in a similar fire. [Footnote 17] The agency also negotiated with the railroad industry to revise freight policies so that trains carrying flammable materials would not enter tunnels at the same time as trains carrying spent fuel. [Footnote 18]

“A significant radiation release would only happen in a very low-probability accident scenario,” says the Natural Resources Defense Council's Cochran. “I'd worry more about being in a small car in front of the truck carrying spent fuel than about exposure from an accident.”

While the potential for major accidents concerns some industry critics, so too does the possibility of routine radiation exposure. Some cite a 2008 environmental impact study by George W. Bush's administration supporting a proposal for large-scale domestic reprocessing and plutonium recycling starting around 2025. [Footnote 19] The report estimated that shipping spent fuel and high-level waste cross-country would cause from a handful to hundreds of additional cancer deaths over 50 years from public exposure to low-level radiation, depending on the number of shipments and whether they went by road or rail. [Footnote 20]

“You can't move spent fuel without irradiating people along the truck routes,” argues Gerald Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest (HOANW), a nonprofit group in Washington state. HOANW advocates for cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation, a site on the Columbia River covering nearly 600 square miles where workers produced plutonium for nuclear weapons from 1943 through the late 1980s. Hanford remains the most contaminated site in the U.S. nuclear weapons production complex. But Pollet asserts that DOE should find ways to manage Hanford's nuclear waste without increasing risk to the public. “If you move it twice — first to reprocess spent fuel and then to send the leftover high-level waste to a repository — we will see many more cancers,” he says.

The National Research Council study also called sabotage of nuclear waste shipments “a major technical and societal concern,” especially in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. [Footnote 21] Companies transporting nuclear waste are required to use routes approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and monitor shipments in transit. But the federal agency's regulations have changed little since they were enacted in 1980. The agency is proposing new requirements, including joint planning with states along transit routes and use of global positioning systems or radiofrequency identification to track shipments in real time. [Footnote 22]

The agency's proposed standards are “a vast improvement over the current rule,” says Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group that lobbies on environmental issues and oversight of nuclear power. But they would be stronger if they spelled out the size and type of attacking force that security measures must withstand, he argues. “This rule still doesn't provide the same level of security for spent fuel in transit as for spent fuel at reactor pools,” Lyman says. “The number of escorts protecting spent fuel shipments is essentially ad hoc and isn't clearly related to a specific and evolving threat.”

The Issues:
* Is transporting radioactive waste dangerous?
* Should Congress revive the Yucca Mountain repository?
* Should the U.S. recycle plutonium from spent fuel?

For more information on the CQ Researcher report on "Managing Nuclear Waste" [subscription required] or purchase the PDF.



[13] Ibid., pp. 2–3.

[14] “Policy Statement B-7,” summarized at{46E77A7B-722B-4393-94A5-FD04BF5CE736}.

[15] U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Safety of Spent Fuel Transportation (2003), pp. 4–5,, and “Typical Spent Fuel Transportation Casks,”

[16] National Transportation Safety Board, “Railroad Accident Brief,” August 2004,

[17] U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Spent Fuel Transportation Package Response to the Baltimore Tunnel Fire Scenario,” NUREG/CR-6886,

[18] U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Staff actions taken in response to the National Academy of Sciences' study on transportation of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel in the United States,” SECY-07-0995 (June 6, 2007).

[19] President Obama changed this plan to focus on basic research, with no reprocessing until mid-century at the earliest.

[20] U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy, “Draft Global Nuclear Energy Partnership Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement — Summary,” DOE/EIS-0396 (October 2008), pp. S-52, S-53, Figures cited are for public latent cancer fatalities.

[21] National Research Council, Going the Distance, op cit., p. 8.

[22] “Physical Protection of Irradiated Reactor Fuel in Transit,” Federal Register, Oct. 13, 2010, pp. 62695–62716.