Safely Transporting Radioactive Materials

Nuclear energy has become an important part of our economy, but it can still become dangerous if not handles properly. Companies that use materials that are considered radioactive must take special precautions to transport these activities safely, depending on their quantity, form, and nature, and in the correct packaging to protect it from harm. Transportation is heavily regulated by organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Regulating Radioactive Material Transport

There are about 20 million packages shipped worldwide each year that transport radioactive materials, and the majority of these are transported using public roads, ships, and railways. The nuclear fuel cycle actually only accounts for five percent of these transports, with the other 95 percent coming from industries like medicine, research, manufacturing, minerals exploration, and agriculture. Of 300 million packages transported in the U.S. each year, about 250,000 contain radioactive waste.

Transport has been regulated by the IAEA since the 1960s, and these regulations have been widely adopted by international and national organizations. Since the packaging largely determines the ability to safely transport items, these regulations often focus heavily on ensuring these packages are as safe as possible.

The Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Throughout the world there are 430 nuclear power reactors that span 32 countries, but the uranium used in these reactors is only mined in 20 countries, and even when it’s done in the same country, that doesn’t mean the uranium mine is necessarily right next door to the nuclear power plant. That means transportation is essential to providing nuclear power, and often it’s over long distances—perhaps even internationally. Once radioactive materials are used, they must then be stored as waste, and while there are a few waste disposal sites adjacent to the nuclear facilities they serve, in most cases having a single disposal site manage waste for multiple facilities will reduce the environmental impact.

Understanding Classification

Radioactive materials can fall under a number of classes, and the systems and names are not standardized across the world, but generally they include:

  • Exempt waste that has negligible radiological hazard because levels are extremely low; this waste is excluded from regulatory control.
  • Low-level waste has some radioactive material to which people should not be exposed, but doesn’t require sophisticated shielding or handling during storage.
  • Intermediate-level waste has significant levels of alpha emitters with a half-life of at least 30 years, and must be shielded during handling and disposal.
  • High-level waste is the most dangerous, with enough radioactivity that it must be cooled and shielded during transportation, and has the highest level of long-lived alpha-emitting isotopes.

Packaging Your Radioactive Waste

When you transport radioactive materials, the safety is your responsibility. Using the correct packaging will reduce the chance of an accident, and since there are different levels of radioactive waste, packaging requirements will vary depending on what you plan to transport. Generally packaging falls into five categories based on the physical characteristics and activity of the radioactive material:

  • Excepted
  • Industrial
  • Type A
  • Type B
  • Type C

For low-level waste, industrial or Type A packaging is acceptable. Type B is the most commonly used, and appropriate for high-level waste, while Type C is the most secure and designed for waste that is transported via aircraft, since the packaging can withstand being ejected from an aircraft at cruising altitude.

Safe transportation of radioactive materials ensures that those who are transporting the items, the public in general, and the environment are protected from the harmful effects from loading through the entire transit route, to unloading and long-term storage.