Radwaste Management/Transport

Route Masters

6 August 2005

Research reactor spent nuclear fuel is regularly transported across the USA by the Department of Energy, in preparation for future shipments to Yucca Mountain. The National Academy of Sciences is studying current routes and procedures. By Thecla Fabian

The US Department of Energy (DoE) regularly ships and receives spent nuclear fuel from research reactors in the USA and abroad. Congress has asked a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel to look at these shipments as part of a larger study on spent nuclear fuel (SNF) transportation in the USA.

As well as the shipments themselves, the NAS, the DoE and individual states are interested in possible lessons they offer for future SNF shipping campaigns to a national repository or interim storage facility.

Language in the fiscal year 2003 omnibus appropriations bill tasked the NAS with reviewing how the DoE selects potential routes to their facilities currently licensed to accept research reactor spent fuel (Idaho National Laboratory, INL, in Idaho and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina), how the DoE selects a route for specific SNF shipments, and also how the department assesses risks associated with SNF shipments along a route.

The NAS is looking at a variety of issues, including whether, and to what extent, DoE shipping plans consider:

  • The proximity of major population centres and the risks of shipments through densely populated areas.
  • Current accident and traffic data.
  • Road quality.
  • Emergency response capabilities along routes.
  • Proximity of routes to places where large numbers of people gather, such as sports venues, and whether timing of activities is considered in transportation planning.
On 26 May, the NAS panel, chaired by Neal Lane of Rice University, met with representatives from the DoE, federal regulatory agencies, corridor states, and US research facilities that ship SNF to DoE sites.


The DoE receives research reactor SNF from three sources: the department’s own research reactors at places such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the General Atomics facility in San Diego, California; foreign research reactors that use US-origin fuel and have contracts for SNF return; and non-DoE domestic research reactors operated by universities and other federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

In the last nine years, the DoE has made 31 shipments of overseas research reactor SNF, said Alex Thrower, the former head of the DoE’s foreign research reactor SNF acceptance programme, who recently moved to the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. This SNF is stored at INL or Savannah River until it can be shipped to a repository.

Twenty-three of the 31 shipments arrived by ship at the Naval Weapons Station port in Charleston, and were sent on overland to Savannah River – 20 by train and three by truck. Two Canadian shipments were trucked to Savannah River. One shipment arrived by ship at a port on the west coast and was shipped by train to INL, and five shipments were trucked from Savannah River to INL.

Foreign research reactor SNF under US contracts represents only a small volume of material: about 20t of uranium in total. This includes 1t of non-aluminum-based Triga SNF shipped to INL and 19t of aluminum-based SNF sent to Savannah River, said Chuck Messick, DoE manager for the foreign research reactor SNF acceptance programme.

Forty-one countries have obtained research reactor fuel from the USA. Contracts call for its return unless the USA approves overseas reprocessing. France and Belgium, for example, have obtained US approval to have their research fuel reprocessed in Europe.

The DoE also accepts SNF from domestic research reactors.

Each year, Savannah River receives about 20-30 shipments from US research reactors, including the HFIR reactor at the DoE’s own Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee; the University of Missouri-Columbia; the University of Michigan; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. Except for the DoE’s own research reactors, the reactor operator, not the DoE, is responsible for shipping the fuel to the DoE under Department of Transportation (DoT) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulations.

INL has received 11 SNF shipments from university and government-owned research reactors, as well as DoE-owned SNF from the West Valley Demonstration Project, a shutdown prototype commercial reprocessing plant in the state of New York. Other sources include DoE reactors in San Diego and Oak Ridge, Cornell University and University of Illinois.


The DoT regulates route selection and transportation of SNF from both research and commercial reactors.

The DoE developed a computer-based routing tool, Tragis, to plan transportation of both highway and rail shipments, and the department works with state and regional groups to select shipping routes, Thrower said. When asked whether this method would scale to larger commercial shipments, Thrower said he thought it would. He called Tragis a “good system,” and said the core of state involvement also will provide a valuable base for future shipments.

DoT’s HM-164 regulation covers truck shipments of radioactive material, including SNF. The rule is based on the idea that transportation risks are low and that packaging requirements are adequate to protect the public, said Michael Conroy of the DoT. However, HM-164 calls for minimising radiological risks and minimising time en route. It also calls for higher levels of control for high-hazard materials such as SNF and larger quantities of material, including preference of interstate highways, beltways and bypasses; driver training programmes and route plans. States can petition to modify DoT preferred routes based on factors such as local traffic congestion, road construction, and local features such as hilly terrain and potential for icing.

For highway route controlled quantities (HRCQ) of radioactive materials, which includes SNF, carriers must remain on preferred routes except for: pickup and delivery; rest, fuel or motor vehicle repair stops; and emergencies. The carrier also must select the shortest route from the pickup or delivery point to the nearest preferred highway route.

The DoT has developed a permit programme for high-hazard materials, including HRCQ radioactive materials, said Ryan Paquet from DoT. The programme includes an extensive pre-departure inspection. State highway officials are responsible for these inspections, and any state that a shipment passes through can require its own inspection. Some shipments have been inspected at the border of almost every state they passed through. The permit programme also requires driver training, and drivers must renew their training certificate every two years.

The NRC shares regulatory responsibility for the shipments – primarily focusing on security.

The NRC’s 10 CFR 73 regulations require advanced route approval for highway and rail shipments, and advanced approval of ports where vessels carrying SNF are scheduled to stop. SNF shipments made by the DoE, or one of their contractors, are not subject to NRC regulations. However shipments made by contractors to a foreign government, including shipments of research reactor SNF to a DoE facility, are subject to NRC regulations within the USA, said Philip Brochman, senior programme manager in NRC’s Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response.

The NRC requires that a licensee or contractor applies to them for security approval for a route, which the agency approves for two years, and approvals may be renewed or extended. Currently, four rail routes, 18 highway routes, and two ports have active NRC approvals. Approved highway routes must conform to the DoT’s routing regulations for HRCQ shipments and must have specified ‘safe havens’ where trucks can pull off in emergencies.

Since the Federal Railroad Administration does not have safety routing requirements for SNF shipments, the NRC generally follows American Association of Railroads requirements for SNF shipments that affect route selection. Security requirements for ports receiving SNF fall under the US Coast Guard’s Maritime Transportation Security Act regulations. The NRC verifies with the USCG captain of the port that the port’s security plan addresses Class 7 hazardous cargo such as SNF. The concept of safe havens is not applicable to train or maritime shipments, Brochman said.


Representatives from two interstate organisations – the Southern States Energy Board (SSEB) and the Council of State Governments-Midwest (CSG- Midwest) – described for the NAS panel their interactions with the DoE, and their particular concerns regarding research reactor SNF shipments.

The SSEB formed a working group on research reactor SNF arriving from overseas in 1996. The group focused on shipments coming into the navy’s port in Charleston, for overland shipment to Savannah River, said SSEB senior policy analyst Christopher Wells. Although the overland portion of most shipments was by train, state input on rail shipments was limited because the rail lines are privately owned.

The states, however, played a very active role in highway route designation. Wells described one particularly egregious example in which the DoE and its contractors initially picked a ‘preferred route’ that passed through a highway interstate interchange locally nicknamed ‘Malfunction Junction’ because it had the highest accident rate in South Carolina.

The SSEB task force consulted the South Carolina official designated by the governor to receive advance notification of the shipments, and identified two primary truck routes deemed by the state to be safer, shorter and faster; and, most importantly, they bypassed the infamous Malfunction Junction.

SSEB also participates in the Cross-Country Transportation Working Group with CSG-Midwest and the Western Governors Association, formed in 1998 to help the DoE plan shipments from Savannah River to INL. The DoE offered four potential routes between the two sites, and each potential corridor state was allowed to provide input before a final routing decision was made. All the states ranked one route, known as the green route, at the bottom of the list.

The Cross-Country group also asked that the DoE:

  • Avoids winter driving conditions whenever possible.
  • Gives states the opportunity to verify route data and criteria.
  • Checks with states on travel times, traffic patterns and other local conditions.
  • Considers scheduled highway construction before selecting routes.
    Uses the same protocols as those used for shipping waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant when possible.

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.