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News from the National Academies
Date: Feb. 9, 2006
Contacts: William Kearney, Director of Media Relations
Sara Frueh, Editor
Megan Petty, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

No Fundamental Technical Barriers to the Safe Transport of Spent Nuclear Fuel
And High-Level Radioactive Waste, But Challenges Remain

WASHINGTON -- There are no fundamental technical barriers to the safe transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste in the United States, but a number of challenges must be addressed, says a new report from a committee of the National Academies' National Research Council. A separate, independent study of the security of such shipments against malevolent acts also is needed, said the committee, which was unable to make this examination because needed information was classified or otherwise restricted.

The radiological risks associated with the transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste are well-understood and generally low, the report says, noting that spent fuel has been shipped worldwide for more than four decades without a significant release of radioactive materials during an accident. However, more attention needs to be paid to understanding and managing the "social" risks involved in transporting these materials – risks that have potential impacts such as lower property values or reduced tourism along shipping routes, for example.

The Research Council conducted the study to meet the need for an independent examination of the risks and key concerns associated with the transport of spent fuel and high-level waste. Shipments of these materials in the United States will increase dramatically if the Department of Energy opens a proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Spent fuel and high-level waste would be shipped there from more than 70 sites in 31 states, and most of these shipments would likely pass through or near major metropolitan areas. Shipping may also increase if DOE develops a spent fuel recycling facility at another site, or if the commercial nuclear industry constructs a facility to store spent fuel until Yucca Mountain opens.

Responding to a request from Congress, the committee also assessed how DOE currently selects routes for shipping spent fuel from research reactors between its facilities in the United States. DOE's procedures for selecting these routes appear to be adequate and reasonable, the committee concluded, noting that the department has considered risk assessments as well as advice from affected states and tribal nations.

Risks Arising From Transport

The committee examined two types of radiological risks -- those arising from normal transport and those from accidents during shipping. The main radiological risk during normal transport is from the low levels of radiation emitted from packages loaded with spent fuel or high-level waste, since no shipping package can block radiation entirely. The report presents a number of comparisons between this risk and other common sources of radiation exposure.

Releases of radioactive materials from shipping packages during accidents are very unlikely given the packages' robust construction and the strict regulations for transporting them, the committee said. However, recent research suggests that a very small number of extreme accident conditions involving fires of very long duration might compromise the packages. More analysis is needed to understand how packages behave under these conditions and to inform possible regulatory or operational changes. Transportation planners should survey routes in advance of shipments to identify and mitigate hazards that could lead to such accidents.

Transportation planners also should establish formal mechanisms for obtaining advice on managing social risks, the report says. For example, DOE should add experts on social risk to one of its existing advisory groups.

Operating Large-Quantity Shipping Programs

In addition to examining risks, the report provides findings and recommendations on operational issues related to the transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. While the recommendations focus on DOE's Yucca Mountain program, they apply to any program for shipping large amounts of these materials.

DOE should identify and make public its preferred routes to Yucca Mountain as soon as possible to support state, tribal, and local planning -- especially efforts to prepare emergency responders. The department should consult with states and tribal nations in selecting these routes. DOE also should immediately begin to execute its responsibilities for preparing emergency responders.

The committee strongly endorsed DOE's decision to ship spent fuel and high-level waste to Yucca Mountain using mostly trains rather than trucks, since rail transport would reduce both the overall number of shipments and their interactions with people along routes. It also strongly endorsed the plan to use "dedicated" trains, which would carry only spent fuel or high-level waste and no other freight. To implement its "mostly rail" option, however, DOE must first build a 319-mile rail line in Nevada. If the department fails to complete this step before the repository opens, it should not resort to large-quantity truck shipments as an interim measure, the committee said.

Shipping older fuel to Yucca Mountain first would provide an additional margin of safety because it generates less heat and radiation, the report says; it would also allow DOE to gain experience and build confidence. However, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act does not give DOE authority to decide the order in which fuel will be shipped from operating plants. The department should negotiate with commercial spent fuel owners to prioritize the shipment of older fuel, and if negotiations do not succeed, Congress should consider changes to the law.

Federal agencies should develop and disclose clear, consistent, and reasonable criteria for protecting sensitive information about shipments, and they should commit to openly sharing information that does not require such protection. For example, before making a shipment, it would be appropriate to share general information such as possible routes, the material to be shipped, and general shipping time frames. More-detailed information -- specific routes, times, and responses to any incidents, for example -- could be disclosed afterward.

DOE's Yucca Mountain transportation program might not succeed unless it is restructured to give it more planning authority and flexibility, the committee said. Though it was beyond the scope of the study to recommend a particular organizational structure for the program, the committee suggested that Congress and the secretary of energy evaluate three possible ways to reorganize it: as a quasi-independent organization within DOE, as a quasi-government corporation, or as a fully private organization operated by the commercial nuclear industry.

The study was funded by the U.S. departments of Energy and Transportation, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Electric Power Research Institute, National Cooperative Highway Research Program, and the National Academy of Sciences. It was overseen by the Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board and Transportation Research Board of the National Research Council, which is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.


Copies of Going the Distance? The Safe Transport of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste in the United States will be available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


[ This news release and report are available at http://national-academies.org ]

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Earth and Life Studies
Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board
and
Transportation Research Board

Committee on Transportation of Radioactive Waste

Neal F. Lane (chair)
University Professor
Department of Physics and Astronomy, and
Fellow, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy
Rice University
Houston

Thomas B. Deen* (vice chair)
Consultant, and
Former Executive Director
Transportation Research Board
National Research Council
Stevensville, Md.

Julian Agyeman
Assistant Professor
Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning
Tufts University
Medford, Mass.

Lisa M. Bendixen
Vice President
ICF Consulting
Lexington, Mass.

Dennis C. Bley
President
Buttonwood Consulting Inc.
Oakton, Va.

Hank C. Jenkins-Smith
Professor of Public Policy, and
Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Chair of Business and Government
George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service
Texas A&M University
College Station

Melvin F. Kanninen*
Principal
MFK Consulting Services
San Antonio

Ernest J. Moniz
Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics, and
Co-Director
Laboratory for Energy and the Environment
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge

John W. Poston Sr.
Professor
Department of Nuclear Engineering,
and Consultant
Veterinary Teaching Hospital
Texas A&M University
College Station

Lacy E. Suiter
Executive Associate Director for Response and Recovery
Federal Emergency Management Agency (retired)
Alexandria, Va.

Joseph M. Sussman
Japan Rail East Professor
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Engineering Systems Division
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge

Elizabeth Q. Ten Eyck
President
ETE Consulting Inc.
Great Falls, Va.

Seth Tuler
Researcher
Social and Environmental Research Institute, and
Research Fellow
Center for Technology, Environment, and Development
George Perkins March Institute
Clark University
Worcester, Mass.

Detlof von Winterfeldt
Professor of Public Policy and Management
School of Policy, Planning, and Development, and
Director
Homeland Security Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events
University of Southern California
Los Angeles

Thomas R. Warne
President
Tom Warne and Associates LLC
South Jordan, Utah

Clive N. Young
Head
Radioactive Materials Transport Division, and
Transport Radiological Adviser
Department for Transport of the United Kingdom
London

STAFF

Kevin D. Crowley
Study Director

Joseph Morris
Senior Program Officer


* Member, National Academy of Engineering