Shipping foreign research reactor spent fuel to the US enters smoother waters

30 November 1998

The US DOE’s programme to take US-origin research reactor spent fuel from other countries has had a difficult journey through review procedures and court actions despite the motive of reducing proliferation risks. Now, however, NAC International’s shipment of the fuel from foreign shores to US storage facilities is running smoothly. This may also be a positive harbinger for the future transportation of spent fuel from US nuclear power plants.

On 21 July 1998, the blue-and red-hulled Blue Bird, a containerised cargo ship, sailed under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge carrying three 24-ton NAC-LWTs with nearly 300 irradiated fuel elements from South Korea. The cargo was en route to the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Idaho Falls facility via the US Navy’s Concord Naval Weapons Station in Suisun Bay.

The voyage, which was carried out by NAC International (NAC) under a transportation services contract to the DOE, was the first marquee shipment in a planned 13-year campaign by the US government to return US origin foreign research spent fuel to US shores as part of a key non-proliferation initiative.


A decade ago, the US’ long-standing policy to accept return of US origin foreign research reactor spent fuel expired. Prior to the policy expiration, most shipments of research reactor spent fuel to the US were completed efficiently using standard practices and attracted little public attention. Because of non-proliferation concerns, particularly regarding highly enriched uranium (HEU) remaining in some locations, and requests from foreign governments, the US agreed to consider a resumption of the return programme.

Environmental policy in the US dictated that the resumption of spent fuel shipments be evaluated for environmental impacts according to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) provisions. Public response to an initial environmental assessment in 1991 led to a DOE commitment to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The EIS was completed in February of 1996. During the EIS preparation, a second environmental review was prepared in 1994 to allow fuel returns from reactors lacking further space for spent fuel storage, termed the Urgent Relief programme. DOE reached decisions in each case to resume shipments; however, the decisions were vigorously contested in US Federal courts by affected state governments. While DOE ultimately prevailed in the courts, it is against this backdrop that shipments of foreign spent fuel resumed after an eight-year hiatus.

Two shipments of spent fuel were performed under the authority of the Urgent Relief programme in 1995. The first involved 153 fuel elements from Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, while the second addressed 99 elements from Switzerland and Greece. NAC was one of several participants in the Urgent Relief shipments. Technical challenges associated with these shipments were relatively minor, with the exception of access restrictions at the Greek facility. NAC developed an engineered transfer system permitting dry transfer of spent fuel from pools and storage facilities to its licensed transport cask, the NAC-LWT, to alleviate this problem.

However, barriers introduced by the administrative reviews surrounding the Urgent Relief shipments were substantial. Consequently, DOE was subject to a level of public involvement and debate, both through NEPA and through the on-going Federal Court proceedings, unlike any it had experienced prior to the original policy expiration. Due to perceived safety and security concerns expressed by the states and members of the public, DOE made a number of concessions intended to mitigate those concerns. These included using military port facilities for receipt of marine shipments, providing radiation response training for state and regional emergency response personnel at ports and along the affected land route, and funding helicopter and motor vehicle escort by state law enforcement forces. DOE also committed to use of rail transport for the domestic portion of the shipment, due to the public’s perceived safety preference for that mode of transport. Redundant locomotives and a lead engine preceding the spent fuel shipment were other concessions made by DOE. Consequently, the Urgent Relief shipments attracted unprecedented attention due to public involvement stemming from the NEPA process, on-going court action, and the procession of air, rail and highway escorts attending the shipment. The fact that the shipments were safely completed and the fuel was transferred to pool storage at the DOE Savannah River Site appeared anticlimactic.

In April 1996, DOE issued a Record of Decision restoring the spent fuel returns policy for a period of 13 years (10 for reactor operation and three for spent fuel cool down). Legal challenge to DOE’s authority to perform the spent fuel returns had been resolved in DOE’s favour prior to the first shipment following the Record of Decision. Rail was retained as the preferred mode of shipment.


However, technical and logistical challenges became pivotal as attention shifted from relieving spent fuel congestion at the highly developed reactor facilities addressed by Urgent Relief to lesser-developed facilities. The established priority in the EIS was for removal of HEU from countries and facilities for which the resources necessary to assure long-term safety and security of the spent fuel were in question. Many of these locations lacked the infrastructure to provide access or handling for heavy-wall licensed transport casks. Spent fuel, which had been in storage often for a period of decades, reflected levels of physical degradation not enveloped by available cask Certificates of Compliance. Issues such as these had been the basis for a DOE decision to contract for spent fuel transportation services, recognising that private sector contractors such as NAC had unique qualifications in container licensing and transportation logistics. NAC was one of two companies selected to provide those services.

The first shipment addressed by the DOE transportation services contract was for return of TRIGA fuel from facilities in South Korea and Indonesia. It is representative of the diversity of logistical and technical issues that have been encountered in the execution of the spent fuel shipments. Fuel was stored at two different reactor facilities in Indonesia and at a reactor and a hot cell facility in South Korea. These facilities exhibited varying degrees of impeded access and had crane capacities as restrictive as five tons. NAC engineered an intermediate transfer system to permit loading of a full basket of pins rather than having to handle each individually.

The TRIGA spent fuel encompassed differing enrichments, cladding materials, and physical geometries, all of which had to be addressed in the Certificate of Compliance and in design of the cask internals that would support the fuel during transport. Furthermore, a number of the assemblies exhibited some degree of degradation varying from minor cladding penetration to completely severed fuel. NAC developed a set of basket and canister designs for its NAC-LWT cask that accommodated the various fuel forms while at the same time satisfying the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s requirements for fuel retention, criticality and containment. An additional benefit of the NAC basket design was its design for dual use as a storage basket at the DOE Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) facility. This permitted reduction in handling operations by a factor of 30, resulting in a substantial improvement in process safety.

Adding to these challenges was the introduction of a new US receiving port in Concord, California, and a domestic land route between California and Idaho. Once again, DOE faced court challenges to its authority to complete the shipment as planned. Challenges by shipment opponents, with regard to unknown or unacceptable safety risks associated with spent fuel transport, were rejected by the court. Following these favourable decisions, the shipment went forward, albeit without the Indonesian fuel due to political concerns in-country. The new route reintroduced many of the logistical issues that had been encountered in the shipment to the DOE Savannah River Site, including rail transport and escort requirements. There was considerable public interest in the shipment and substantial involvement by state and local agencies. The precision and safety apparent in the execution of the shipment quieted much of the potential opposition, resulting in surprisingly favourable coverage by the local press.


The success apparent in DOE’s resumption of foreign spent fuel shipments has also had a synergistic effect on its domestic shipments as well. (Domestic shipments from DOE facilities had also been suspended and were being addressed by other NEPA studies.) Beginning in 1996, when it became necessary to perform a complete fuel removal of 900 assemblies from the High Flux Beam Reactor at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, DOE turned to the private sector having demonstrated its capability during foreign fuel shipments. NAC was selected to move the fuel by barge from New York’s Long Island to the Portsmouth, Virginia receiving facility. Shipment was made by truck from there to the Savannah River Site. NAC’s proven performance during foreign fuel shipments, use of shipment protocols demonstrated during the foreign shipments, and the relationships previously established with involved state, local and regional agencies facilitated timely, safe and successful completion of the Brookhaven shipment.

Whether these early research reactor return shipment case studies are harbingers for the eventual shipment of US utility spent nuclear fuel to a public or private central storage facility is still in question. Nonetheless, each one of these shipments has broadened the envelope of people and agencies that have become knowledgeable in the stringent licensing regulations, nuclear safety practices and transportation protocols implicit in the shipment of spent nuclear fuel. At the same time, NAC has observed a lessening of the anxiety that surrounded the first of the shipments and enhanced cooperation by the affected regional agencies and the general public. All of this bolsters the US’ already impressive nuclear materials transportation track record and bodes well for future transport campaigns to come.

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