The Association of American Railroads (AAR) has approved for operation the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) new railcar designed to transport used nuclear fuel. Atlas is a 12-axle railcar designed by DOE to safely and securely transport shipments of used nuclear fuel weighing up to 480,000 pounds. The project took ten years to complete and cost approximately $33m. AAR certified the Atlas railcar system to operate on all major freight railroads in the US.

The railcar, fully equipped with high-tech sensors and monitoring systems will be used to transport US commercial used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. The entire railcar system includes Atlas, two buffer railcars, and a rail escort vehicle that was developed in partnership with the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Programme.

Final testing in autumn 2023 involved a 1,680 round-trip journey from Pueblo, Colorado to Scoville, Idaho. They are the first DOE railcars to meet the rigorous testing requirements of AAR’s S-2043 standard for transporting high-level radioactive material.

“The certification of the Atlas railcar by the AAR is a significant step forward as we develop the infrastructure to safely manage and store the nation’s nuclear waste,” said Paul Murray, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Spent Fuel & High-Level Waste Disposition. “The capability for DOE to safely and securely transport spent nuclear fuel is a key component of DOE’s vision for an integrated waste management system that includes transportation, and government-owned storage and permanent disposal identified through a consent-based siting process.”

Atlas is one of two railcars DOE is developing to provide flexibility in transporting used fuel and high-level radioactive waste to future federal interim storage facilities and disposal sites. Fabrication efforts are underway on the 8-axle Fortis railcar that will be used to handle lighter loads. Fortis is expected to begin single car testing no earlier than 2025 and could be operational before the end of the decade.

Subject to appropriations, DOE is moving forward on a government-owned consolidated interim storage facility project that includes rail transportation. DOE intends to eventually transport more than 140,000 metric tonnes of commercial used fuel that is estimated to be generated in the US by 2060.

The location of the storage facility would be selected through DOE’s consent-based siting process that puts communities at the forefront and would ultimately reduce the number of locations where commercial spent nuclear fuel is stored in the US. However, construction and operation of a federal consolidated interim storage facility will require amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to move the project forward.