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Congressional Research Service Reports
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97-403 - Transportation of Spent Nuclear Fuel (pdf)

Summary

The risk of transporting highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants to a central storage site or permanent underground repository is a major factor in the current nuclear waste debate. With strong support from nuclear utilities and state utility regulators, the House and Senate have passed bills (H.R. 1270 and S. 104) that would designate a central storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, that could begin receiving spent fuel shipments from nuclear plant sites as soon as possible. Environmental groups and other opponents of that plan counter that, partly because of the potential transportation hazard, spent fuel should remain stored at reactor sites until the opening of a permanent underground repository, which also is planned for Yucca Mountain. The Department of Energy (DOE) currently expects to begin operating the planned Yucca Mountain repository by 2010.

Controversy over the transportation of spent fuel and other highly radioactive nuclear waste has focused on the adequacy of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) standards for shipping casks, the potential consequences of transportation accidents, and the routes that nuclear waste shipments are likely to follow.

NRC requires that spent fuel shipping casks be able to survive a sequential series of tests that are intended to represent severe accident stresses. The tests are a 30-foot drop onto an unyielding flat surface, a shorter drop onto a vertical steel bar, engulfment by fire for 30 minutes, and, finally, immersion in three feet of water. A undamaged sample of the cask design must be able to survive submersion in the equivalent pressure of 50 feet and 200 meters of water.

Studies for NRC and other federal agencies have found that casks meeting NRC's standards would survive nearly all transportation accidents without releasing large amounts of radioactive material. The safety record of more than 1,000 past shipments of spent fuel in the United States is consistent with those findings. Four accidents occurred during those previous U.S. shipments, and none released radioactive material, according to a federal database.

NRC's cask standards and the federal safety studies have been criticized by the State of Nevada and others who contend that severe accidents could release hazardous levels of radioactivity. They argue that NRC's cask tests do not adequately represent a number of credible accident scenarios, and that individual casks may be fatally compromised by manufacturing flaws and by loading and handling errors.

Because nuclear power plants and DOE waste storage sites are located throughout the nation, almost all states are expected to be traversed by nuclear waste shipments. Major east-west highway and rail lines in the central United States are likely to be the most heavily used, but numerous options are available under current regulations. The Department of Transportation (DOT) requires that highway shipments of spent fuel follow the quickest route on the interstate highway system, although states are allowed to designate alternative routes if they follow certain procedures.

More than 80,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel, highly radioactive fuel rods that can no longer efficiently generate power, are expected to be discharged from today's nuclear power plants during their scheduled operating lives. Considered a waste material in the United States, spent fuel will remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. Unless spent fuel is to be kept permanently at reactor sites, it will have to be transported elsewhere for long-term storage and disposal a prospect that has generated considerable controversy along potential transportation routes.

The Department of Energy (DOE) is required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) to study the suitability of Yucca Mountain, Nevada, for permanent underground disposal of commercial spent nuclear fuel, as well as highly radioactive waste owned by DOE. Under DOE's current schedule, disposal of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain could begin by 2010 if the site is found suitable and receives a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). That schedule, widely considered to be optimistic given the program's history, is 12 years later than the disposal deadline established by NWPA.

Nuclear utilities, state utility regulators, and other groups have been urging Congress to establish an interim storage facility at Yucca Mountain to begin receiving nuclear waste much sooner than currently planned by DOE. The House and Senate have passed similar bills (H.R. 1270 and S. 104) that would establish tight schedules for transporting nuclear waste to a Yucca Mountain storage facility. (For details, see CRS Issue Brief 92059, Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal.)

The interim storage bills are vehemently opposed by the State of Nevada, environmental groups, and other organizations that cite transportation hazards as one of their primary concerns. The opponents of central storage contend that, because NRC has determined on-site storage to be adequately safe, any risk posed by transporting spent fuel from reactor sites in the near term is unnecessary. Nuclear utilities, noting that NRC also has found transportation to be adequately safe, respond that the benefits of central storage of spent fuel far outweigh any transportation risks involved.

Although it is generally expected that spent fuel will be transported from nuclear power plants eventually, opponents of the Yucca Mountain interim storage plan point out that extended on-site storage would allow for radioactive decay in spent fuel before it was shipped. After 100 years, radioactivity in spent fuel would drop by more than 99 percent, although it still would contain more than 10,000 curies per metric ton, and long-lived radioactive elements such as plutonium would not have decayed significantly.

Major issues in the transportation debate are the extent of the risks posed by a national shipping campaign for spent fuel, the adequacy of federal regulation of transportation safety, and the possible concentration of shipments along certain major east-west transportation routes. This report discusses currently available statistics, analyses, and other studies that may be used to evaluate those concerns.

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* These CRS reports were produced by the Congressional Research Service, a branch of the Library of Congress providing nonpartisan research reports to members of the House and Senate. The National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) has made these reports available to the public at large, but the Congressional Research Service is not affiliated with the NCSE or the National Library for the Environment (NLE). This web site is not endorsed by or associated with the Congressional Research Service. The material contained in the CRS reports does not necessarily express the views of NCSE, its supporters, or sponsors. The information is provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. NCSE disclaims all warranties, either express or implied, including the warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose. In no event shall NCSE be liable for any damages.