Fact Sheet  
Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management - Office of National Transportation
Spent nuclear fuel transportation casks are the  most robust containers in the transportation industry.

Transportation of Spent Nuclear Fuel

Transportation containers are heavy, sealed, thick-walled, steel structures that safely confine the spent nuclear fuel.

A safe, dependable transportation system is a crucial link in the operation of any proposed permanent geologic repository for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Over the last 40 years, approximately 3,000 shipments of spent nuclear fuel have been transported safely over America's highways, waterways, and railroads. During this time, an exemplary safety record has been established with no fatalities, injuries, or environmental damage caused by the radioactive nature of the cargo.

Several factors have contributed to this success. The spent nuclear fuel is a solid, ceramic-like material enclosed in metal tubes and shipped dry in rugged containers. These containers are heavy, sealed, thick-walled, steel structures that safely confine the spent nuclear fuel. These specially engineered containers are designed to keep their radioactive cargo from being released into the environment under both normal and accident conditions.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) sets design and performance standards that must be met for a transportation package to be certified. NRC also establishes safeguard and security regulations to minimize the possibility of theft, diversion, or attack on shipments.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has the primary responsibility for regulating the safe transport of radioactive materials in the United States. It sets the standards for packaging, transporting, and handling radioactive materials, including labeling, shipping papers, loading, and unloading requirements. DOT regulations also specify the training needed by drivers and others involved in the handling and transport of radioactive waste.

Truck-Mounted Spent Fuel Shipping Cask


Designed To Ensure Safety

Each shipping container is designed to maintain its integrity under normal transportation conditions and during hypothetical accident conditions. The designs must demonstrate protection against radiological release to the environment under the following hypothetical accident conditions:

  • A 9 meter (30-foot) free fall on to an unyielding surface

  • A puncture test allowing the container to free-fall 1 meter (40 inches) onto a steel rod 15 centimeters (6 inches) in diameter

  • A 30-minute, all-engulfing fire at 800 degrees Celsius (1475 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • An 8-hour immersion under 0.9 meter (3 feet) of water.
    Compliance with this sequential series of tests may be demonstrated by computer modeling, scale-model or full-scale tests. An additional hypothetical accident condition is required for spent fuel in which an undamaged package must be subjected to a one-hour immersion under 200 meters (655 feet) of water.

Cask test illustration

Planning for Routine Shipments

Routing is an important issue because it is related to a variety of OCRWM activities including advance notification, emergency response preparedness, inspection and enforcement, and risk management. Until such time as a Federal receiving facility is designated pursuant to existing or future legislation, specific routes and number of shipments cannot be determined. Once shipments of spent nuclear fuel begin, the Department of Energy will follow existing DOT regulations which generally limit shipments to either the interstate highway systems, a state-designated alternative route, or both. Rail shipments will be routed using current rail practices.

What If An Accident Occurs?

Radioactive waste transport is controlled by the comprehensive regulatory framework previously described and has an excellent safety record. Because there is a chance that an accident involving a radioactive shipment could occur, emergency response plans will be in place to handle situations that could arise. The key to effective emergency response is quality training and preparation. The DOE will provide technical and financial assistance for training public safety officials through whose jurisdictions the Department transports spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. As the Department develops the Federal waste management system, it is committed to providing safe shipments of spent nuclear fuel across the nation's highways and railroads.

Yucca Mountain Project