Transportation in the U.S. Nuclear Waste Program

Since 1982, the U.S. Nuclear Waste Program Has Underestimated Its Transportation Component.

The Blue Ribbon Commission recommended prompt efforts to develop “one or more” consolidated (off-site) storage facilities, and “one or more” geologic disposal facilities. But, spent fuel and high-level wastes are generated at 79 sites in 34 states, from Maine and Florida to California and Washington. Obviously transportation is essential to successful implementation of such a program.

The NWPA of 1982 included, in Sections 137 and 180, only five provisions (requiring only one-half page) regarding transportation of SNF and HLW:

  • One saying that DOE transport of SNF and HLW should meet the same NRC and DOT regulations that apply to commercial SNF shipments;
  • A second saying that DOE transport of SNF and HLW should utilize private carriers to the fullest extent possible;
  • A third saying that such transport should use packages certified by the NRC;
  • A fourth saying that DOE should notify States in advance of such shipments; and
  • A fifth saying that the program should fund training of state and local officials for safe routine transportation and emergency response.

While it is arguable that transportation system design for SNF and HLW should not be done by Congress, it is also apparent that Congress’ view in 1982 was that, with proper attention to business as usual, transportation should not pose a major problem.

Since 1964, SNF transport has occurred in the U.S., but it has been occasional and short distance (e.g. the 160 mile transfers between Carolina P&L’s Brunswick and Robinson plants) or one-time for special purpose (e.g. the removal of damaged fuel from Three Mile Island 2 in Pennsylvania to Idaho national laboratory. By contrast, the Final Supplemental EIS for Yucca Mountain proposed to transfer 130,000 MTHM, at a rate of about 280 cask shipments per year, from 79 origin sites, an average of 2400 miles per shipment, over 45-50 years.

Over three decades following passage of the NWPA, program managers tended to underestimate the transportation component of the U.S. nuclear waste program. The following factors suggest why transportation of SNF and HLW is difficult, in both logistical and policy terms:

    • Shipments must be made from 79 origin sites, each has a distinctive local community, reactor or site operator, fuel handling facilities, near-site transportation constraints, and experience in dealing with federal agencies, nuclear power and/or weapons production.
    • Of 71 sites that could ship by rail, at least 21 do not have direct rail access to mainline railroads, and must use heavy-haul, barge or other means to transfer SNF to a Class 1 railroad.
    • The amount of radioactivity in SNF.HLW shipment is dramatically greater than that in a shipment of transuranic waste to WIPP, in New Mexico. Given the lack of trust in government (especially federal government) and the general public’s perception of things radioactive (particularly radioactive waste), it will be difficult to persuade corridor communities (who have no direct stake in removal or disposal) that SNF/HLW transport will be safe, secure, and uneventful. Given that transportation has not been a consideration in the selection of storage or disposal sites, there could be hundreds of corridor communities.
    • Federal program managers have limited control over transportation logistics, and therefore limited ability to limit SNF/HLW transportation impacts. The “Standard Contract” between the federal government and reactor owners, established by NWPA Section 302, gives reactor owners substantial control over what SNF is removed from which sites in what sequence. If the federal government is to convince corridor communities that necessary transport will minimize transportation impacts, the Standard Contract must be renegotiated. DOE has shown no inclination to engage in such renegotiation.
    • It is generally agreed that, other things equal (never entirely the case), it is preferable to remove SNF/HLW transport from public highways. Yet, while federal and state governments have substantial control of the use of public highways, they have much more limited control of the use of railroads, whose private owners and operators have substantial sway in Congress. How rail carriers will balance their private business interests with the government’s need for SNF transport of the greatest possible efficiency and the minimum impact is not resolved.


  • Recommendations for SNF/HLW Transportation (Summaries)
    • The National Academies
    • The Blue Ribbon Commission
    • Other
  • WGA resolutions regarding SNF/HLW storage and transport (Key provisions)
    • 11-3: The Storage and Disposal of Radioactive Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel
    • 11-5: Transportation of Radioactive Waste, Radioactive Materials, and Spent Nuclear Fuel
  • Transportation Regulations
    • Packaging
    • Marking, labeling, and packaging
    • Inspections & shipping papers
    • Routing
    • Advance notifications
    • Railroad safety
    • Personnel training
    • Other
  • Transportation System Components
    • Casks, containers and cans.
    • Transport equipment: railcars, buffer and escort cars; trucks.
    • Transportation operations center (see also: logistics)
    • Cask maintenance
    • Transport services
  • Transportation Operations and Practices
    • Stakeholder interactions
    • Route planning, route assessment systems
    • Dedicated trains and the settlement agreements
    • Monitoring, tracking and communications/notification
    • State “reciprocity” in SNF/HLW transport
    • Carrier personnel qualifications.
    • Inspections
    • Off-normal conditions
    • Maintenance of casks and equipment; “turn-around”
    • Coordination: safe, secure and uneventful
    • Coordination: emergency response
    • Coordination: sustained implementation/complacency
  • Transportation Logistics: Maximizing Efficiencies; Minimizing Impacts
    • Efficient removal:
      • The pickup queue
      • Cask and equipment purchases
      • Origin site coordination.
      • Routing convergence and route preparation
      • Turn-around time and inter-site coordination
    • Reduce shipments and shipment distances
      • Shipment distance & impacts (esp. re off-site storage)
    • Number of shipments.
  • Risk perception in SNF/HLW transportation.

The average TRU shipment to WIPP contains just 154 curies, while the average DPC (20-year old) SNF contains 10,000 times that amount. (Estimate being checked.) While SNF is a profound hazard, it is generally well managed, so that the technical risk (probability * consequence) is generally low, lower than in transport of gasoline or chlorine. But, what persuades hundreds of corridor communities to accept this formulation? And, what happens to transport if corridor communities do not accept? In what sense do corridor communities “consent” to transport that does not directly benefit them? Trust in overall program management, and trust in the transportation system design may be the keys. Currently, trust in the federal government generally, in the Department of Energy, and in the OCRWM legacy transportation system design is low. This trust must be re-established (and quickly) if SNF is to begin to move from shutdown sites in 2021 and from operating sites by 2025. If not re-established, might SNF not move?

  • Radioactivity
  • Property values
  • Accidents
  • Security