The commercial nuclear power generation sector dates back to the 1950s, but the transportation of nuclear materials goes back even further – more than two decades further. Today, the amount of nuclear waste shipped per nuclear power producing country varies hugely.

According to a study carried out by Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization, the country transports just five shipments per year, a figure dwarfed by its North American neighbour, the US, which ships up to 3000 loads by road, rail and sea annually, according to figures from 2013. In all, however, the World Nuclear Association says there are as many as 20 million consignments shipped globally each year. Nuclear consignments can include mined materials, old reactor parts, spent fuel and contaminated cooler water among other things.

The US challenge

The US is currently battling a shortage of repository sites, leading to legal wrangling and waste building up at nuclear power facilities across the country. A proposed repository at Yucca Mountain has been on hold since the now-outgoing Obama administration cut its funding in 2010, declaring it “unworkable”. Situated about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, the facility has been a controversy hanging over the nuclear sector since it was first mooted in the late 1980s.

Today political opinion remains divided and the issue continues to be a source of friction. Opponents talk of it’s high cost – as much as $2 billion to get it started again and anything up to $100 billion over its lifetime – whilst supports argue nuclear waste in the US is fast becoming a matter of national security that needs addressing urgently. However, with the recent election of Donald Trump, the waters look set to become no clearer.

It is perhaps not the site itself that is the problem; it could be argued it is simply the idea of burying nuclear waste. A proposed “short-term” nuclear waste dump for high- level materials in Texas has drawn scorn from a number of campaign groups. The facility in Andrews County – proposed by Waste Control Specialists (WSC) – would be home to 40,000 metric tons of waste on what the constructor and operator says would be an “interim basis”. However the groups – Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), Public Citizen, Beyond Nuclear, and the Texas-based Sustainable Energy & Economic Development (SEED) Coalition – say the site would likely become the permanent home of the facility given the current legal and political situation surrounding other proposals such as Yucca Mountain.

The collective called on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to end its review of the licence application. They claimed WSC had asked government to assume responsibility for the waste and to agree to carry out the shipment of the waste. They added that if government were to take responsibility for the waste there would be no incentive for commercial producers to ensure it were disposed of correctly and ultimately on a long-term basis.

Lambasting the project Kevin Kamps, radioactive waste specialist at Beyond Nuclear, said: “By requiring a permanent deep geological repository to be operating before centralised interim storage could be opened, Congress wanted to prevent the very real danger of a de facto permanent parking lot dump – a nuclear waste storage site that would be designed for the short-term but be there forever. WCS is a cynical shell game and taxpayers are sure to lose. Congress was right that liability for the costs of storing commercial irradiated nuclear fuel belongs with the generators and should not be shifted onto the backs of the American public.”

Safety & security

Aside from the obvious issue of disposal, the problems both projects are facing highlight the challenges the industry has to meet in the disposal of nuclear waste. Transportation has long been an issue for hazardous material: chemicals, flammables and other dangerous cargo such as nuclear waste.

In March 2015 a train derailment in Canada’s Northern Ontario highlighted the dangers of shipping hazardous freight. The train, carrying crude oil, left the track and exploded causing a major incident. It was the fourth such accident in just a few months with a previous one leading to the spillage of bitumen. In 2013 47 people died when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in Quebec.

Thankfully the nuclear industry does, however, in the whole have a good safety record when it comes to material shipping. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) since the 1970s 80,000 metric tons of nuclear waste have been transported globally through more than 7000 shipments. The institute says: “None of which has involved any leaks of radioactive material or personal injury. Most of this nuclear waste has been transported via land and sea from nuclear power reactors in Europe and Japan to reprocessing facilities.”

It is the result of substantial research and now experience that these journeys are so safe. In the US the NRC is the regulator for these huge transportation containers – both their design and manufacture – weighing as much as 40 tons for shipment by road and 125 tons for transportation by rail. Staggeringly on average for every ton of fuel placed inside the container there are three tons and more of protective casing. Each container design must be robustly tested before it is cleared for use as a transportation vehicle. They are assessed by being put through a serious of high impact crashes, fire and submersion into water.

When fuel is spent ceramic pellets are placed and secured in metal tubes for transportation. “The fuel cannot explode, and the massive containers in which it is transported can protect public health and the environment even if subjected to the highest temperatures seen in transportation accidents involving chemicals or other flammable materials,” says the NEI. The Institute continues: “After extensive studies, both the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the National Academy of Sciences concluded that used nuclear fuel can be transported safely.”

The route a shipment takes is also regulated in the US and around the world. In the US the NRC – which also governs routes – requires shipments are made along specified highways and interstates and, wherever possible, avoid large cities. The route must be cleared beforehand by the NRC and notice has to be given to state authorities through which the cargo will travel.

According the NEI the US government’s Department of Energy (DOE) is making plans for “large-scale transportation of used fuel to one or more interim storage facilities once they are developed”. It says: “The agency is working to provide state, local and tribal organisations funding and technical assistance for public safety and emergency preparedness programmes and to develop preliminary routes for shipments of used nuclear fuel.” Of course at present those plans remain just that given the situation with short-term repositories.

While safety has been well maintained, to date, in today’s arguably more volatile world it is security that is a more concerning issue. Given the events of recent years it is clear there is a threat to security in the Western world. That threat no doubt stretches to the nuclear industry. Intelligence agencies the world over have already expressed concerns.

Earlier this year authorities in Belgium revoked security clearance for a number of employees in the nuclear power generation sector according to reports. The media reported there were fears Islamic State had infiltrated the profession with a cell planning to use radioactive materials – obtained because of their security privileges – to launch a large-scale terrorist attack. The validity of those claims remains unclear but it serves to highlight the value those with murderous intent place on such materials and the need for robust security systems and continued vigilance.

The transportation of such materials therefore could be seen to offer an “opportunity” should anyone want to take
it. Within the confines of a nuclear facility security is far more easily managed. However, in the “outside world” there are many factors beyond the control of the shipper and as such there is a perceived weakness.

In order to address these concerns the Canadian Nuclear Association suggests a number of steps are taken to heighten the level of protection offered. They include:

  • Safe engineering of vehicles and containers.
  • Qualified personnel receiving sound procedures and training.
  • Inventory tracking and accountability.
  • Independent, professional regulatory bodies.
  • Careful study and analysis of incidents.

Whilst individual countries are responsible for the regulation of nuclear material transportation, internationally the Convention on the Physical Protection Material (CPPM) details recommendations for states to ensure their regulation meets the highest possible requirements, both for domestic transportation and international shipping. The IAEA also produces a Nuclear Security Series on implementing guides for regulators, operators and those tasked with the physical transportation of cargo.

Part of ensuring regulations meet the needs of today’s nuclear sector is dialogue between industry and government. The World Nuclear Transportation Institute suggests it might be good practice for agencies to share staff or allow for secondment, offering employees the opportunity to share experiences and formulate best practice.

As the events in Belgium showed, when authorities feared a terrorist attack from within, this is perhaps the biggest threat to the nuclear sector. The transportation of nuclear materials is no different. It is already specified that anyone involved with dangerous materials should go through security screening – before they are given access to sensitive areas of the industry. Again, however, this is far easier to ensure in a controlled environment unlike that during the transportation phase.

The World Nuclear Transportation Institute says it is impractical to require all “ancillary” workers – port staff, maintenance engineers, caterers etc – to undergo security screening and other background checks. In these instances the Institute suggests risk assessments are carried out to ensure “their actions cannot significantly interfere with or degrade the security arrangements” that are in place. It continues: “This may require personnel supervision, security inspection and checks before departure, measures to ensure continuity of knowledge concerning the integrity of the consignment, etc.”

Perhaps one of the biggest weapons an organisation has is trust, gained through the continuity of staff. Building strong, reliable teams is key. However, if there are to be changes to teams they should be “managed with care and new personnel should be subject to induction programmes,” says the Institute.

A global vision

It is clear that, given the good safety record of nuclear waste transferral, developed countries have already established best practice and are most certainly on the right track to ensuring the safety and security of nuclear waste; although that is not to say we can be complacent. However, around the world risks remain.

You only need do a web search to find a whole bunch of articles and papers discussing nuclear transportation security
in developing countries. Although clearly an opponent of a new nuclear facility in Turkey – the joint venture between the Turkish state and Russian state-owned Rosatom – an article published by Turkey’s Daily News in October did raise an interesting question.

It, the article, said following the re- establishment of relations between Turkey and Russia – which were badly damaged following the shooting down of a Russian military jet in 2015 – cooperation on a nuclear project which will see the construction of the nuclear power plant near the Mediterranean city of Mersin was back on. Whilst the piece went on to criticise the project further it drew attention to the security threats it faces. Indeed the proposed facility would be relatively near the Syrian border. The article said: “Nuclear facilities present difficult but very attractive targets for terrorist groups. Turkey has plenty of them: In addition to the long-standing threat posed by the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and radical leftist groups like the DHKP-C, the location of the nuclear facility adds an additional vulnerability as Akkuyu is close to a number of state and non–state threats, including those emanating from the Syrian civil war.”

It said a recent report published by the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) security threats. “Radiological sabotage represents potentially the biggest threat to civilian nuclear infrastructure. Then comes theft or diversion, with nuclear and radiological material highly vulnerable to sabotage or theft while being transported, this issue is especially important as Akkuyu’s nuclear waste will be carried by sea all the way from Mersin to Russia. Finally, the acquisition of sensitive information on nuclear technology by adversaries is another risk facing nuclear facilities.” It is the threat from interception that stands out. Although the security of the cargo will likely be as good as that of any other nuclear shipment around the world, it could be argued the threat from infiltration by individuals is perhaps the most dangerous thing in that part of the world.

Whether the project goes ahead and however it is managed, before, during and after completion, it does lead us all to consider the safety of nuclear shipments the world over. Manufacturing advances, developing technology and best practice have all helped improve the safety and security of what was an already well-regulated sector. But complacency is our biggest foe, wherever we are in the world.

The challenge those engaged with the transportation of nuclear material – whether working in the power generation sector, transportation sector or regulators and governmental bodies – face is to continue to stay one step ahead of those wanting to do us harm.

Today’s world is a dangerous one, inhabited, sadly, by some that want to cause harm. Don’t take anything for granted and always be looking for new and innovative ways to protect people and the environment – after all, we know from past experience there are people with as much conviction looking to do both ultimate harm. 

Sources: The Canadian Nuclear Association; The World Nuclear Transport Institute; The world Nuclear Association; The Nuclear Energy Institute; and The US Office of Nuclear Energy.