Radwaste management | Transport
Not an afterthought1 November 2011
The transportation and storage subcommittee of US president Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future published draft recommendations in May 2011. Its report makes the important point that nuclear sites need to start planning of nuclear waste transport long before the material is due to be moved. By Henry-Jacques Neau
Recommendation 6 of the report observes that the current system of standards and regulations governing the transport of spent fuel and other nuclear materials appears to be functioning well, and the safety record for past shipments of these types of materials is excellent. However, planning and coordination for the transport of spent fuel and high-level waste is complex and should commence at the very start of a project to develop consolidated storage capacity.
The World Nuclear Transport Institute (WNTI) strongly endorses this recommendation; transport operations are intrinsic to the fuel cycle and their requirements should form a necessary part of planning for spent fuel and waste storage and disposal from the very beginning. The Sub-Committee on Transport and Storage underlined this in noting that it will be important to allow substantial lead-time to assess and resolve transportation issues well in advance of when materials would be expected to actually begin shipping to a new facility. With impressive candour, the Sub-Committee observed that historically some programmes had treated transportation planning as an afterthought. History also has taught that if the transport architecture is not well-designed, and fails the test of public acceptance, then storage and disposal options will be severely constrained. In any such consideration of transport options to support storage, disposal or reprocessing facilities, the same careful thought must be given concurrently to the packaging and transportation of spent fuel and wastes.
Clearly the transport of radioactive materials over several decades has an excellent safety record, with no instance of significant harm to life or the environment. This is due to a stringent transport safety regulatory regime and the professionalism of industry. However, there can be no room for complacency. Transport operations in the 21st century face important safety (and security) challenges which are made more complex by the increased volumes of spent fuel and waste materials from a mature industry spread across many sites in many countries, including decommissioned plants, and the failure thus far in many countries to settle on long-term storage and/or disposal options.
Some 21st-century challenges
The decommissioning of nuclear plants which have outlived their productive life of necessity means a growing requirement to transport certain contaminated large objects such as reactor heat exchangers from such sites to storage and disposal facilities (see also NEI December 2009, pp. 39-40). The transport of these objects can face practical difficulties within an existing regulatory regime. These difficulties are being addressed and regulations reviewed to ensure that regulations help and not impede such necessary transports.
In a related area, many streams from fuel processing and decommissioning operations contain only a small quantity of fissile materials in a large quantity of non-fissile materials and also, in some cases, neutron absorbers. Historically, regulations required many such waste materials to be transported in fissile packages when there was no realistic criticality hazard, thereby adding to the complexity and cost of transport.
The Sub-Committee Report does not go into great detail about the packages themselves for transport and storage. However, the timeframe for spent fuel storage is growing longer due mainly to the lack of reprocessing or disposal facilities and this in turn can raise regulatory issues because of the different times for which transport and storage licences are valid (transport: relatively short; storage: long).
“Transport operations are intrinsic to the fuel cycle and their requirements should form a necessary part of planning for spent fuel and waste storage and disposal from the very beginning.”
The importance of engaging with stakeholders at all levels to enhance public understanding and to increase capabilities to deal with any untoward situations is well-recognised in the Sub-Committee Report. There is much valuable experience in this regard to be found internationally: witness for example the Swedish efforts at public consultation in the identification of a long-term repository, or the French example of periodic emergency preparedness exercises involving officials at all levels of government and industry.
Transport security has always gone hand-in-hand with transport safety, but clearly has attracted greater prominence in the first decade of the 21st century. However, certain transport material and package safety design features work together with operational measures to provide high levels of security during transport.
The Sub-Committee on Transport and Storage found that while there appears to be no fundamental technical barriers to the safe transport of spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste in the United States, safe transport is contingent upon continued strict compliance with and continued commitment to updating applicable safety requirements and protective measures. It is to be hoped that the periodic review of the international transport safety regulatory regime will continue to proceed in this spirit so that the increased challenges of the 21st century in addressing such issues as the movement of large objects, fissile exceptions and dual-use of casks can be confronted in a safe, cost-effective and publicly-acceptable manner.
The Sub-Committee Report also found that the excellent safety record for past spent fuel shipments, and the reasons for it, including extensive efforts to engage states, tribes, and local governments in logistics coordination and emergency response planning, need to be more widely understood and vigorously maintained in the future. The World Nuclear Transport Institute (WNTI) is committed to doing all it can to support efforts to promote such public awareness and understanding.
This article was originally published in the October 2011 issue of Nuclear Engineering International (p48)
Henry-Jacques Neau, secretary general, World Nuclear Transport Institute, Remo House, 310-312 Regent Street, London W1B 3AXRelated ArticlesUS Blue Ribbon Commission goes on tour
Transport operations are intrinsic to the fuel cycle and their requirements should form a necessary part of planning for spent fuel and waste storage and disposal from the very beginning.