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Column: Information about used nuclear fuel rail transport

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Recently, there’s been a lot of conversation about the safe and secure rail transport of used nuclear fuel to the proposed Interim Storage Partners facility at Waste Control Specialists, where I work. Unfortunately, some of this discussion may do more to confuse the topics than add clarity, so I wanted to provide this information as a factual resource for your readers, as I have in other places.

Everything about used nuclear fuel transport is carefully considered, planned and implemented. Used nuclear fuel has been transported safely and securely in the United States for decades, and is closely regulated and monitored by both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Transportation, along with state and security organizations.

Let’s start with the used nuclear fuel itself and how it is packaged for transport. Used nuclear fuel is a dry, solid ceramic pellet, not a liquid. These pellets are about the size and shape of a large pencil eraser. They are stacked and sealed inside long metal-alloy rods, which are then securely bound into a rectangular bundle called a fuel assembly.

After the radioactive used fuel assemblies are removed from a reactor and cooled underwater for a minimum of two years, they are loaded into large canisters, which are welded shut and vacuum dried to remove all liquid and air from the sealed canister. The canister is then filled with an inert gas that prevents the fuel from degrading over time.

Some additional safety facts that are important to me: The canister containing the dry used nuclear fuel and inert gas cannot explode or even catch fire. The solid pellets do not burn. In addition, there is no potential for a chemical or physical reaction that could build pressure inside the canister to cause it to burst.

Dry used nuclear fuel in transport and storage is very stable and, therefore, there can be no comparison to Chernobyl or to nuclear weapons, or to the material being disposed at WIPP.

Extensive research, testing and experience has shown that there is no credible way for this solid used fuel material to spread and cause harm in an accident, even one that somehow breaches both the robust transport cask and canister.

To be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the transport cask design has successfully demonstrated it will maintain containment (a leak-tight seal) and shielding (protection from radiation) during a cumulative sequence of accident scenarios, including drops or high-velocity impacts, punctures, intense fires, and immersion underwater. The transport cask’s licensing as a durable container for securely containing the used nuclear fuel does not even consider the metal canister holding the used fuel inside the cask, which provides another leak-tight barrier inside.

In the unlikely event that there was an accident, the used nuclear fuel canister is protected by being sealed inside a robust, heavy-walled transport cask precisely engineered with multiple layers of different materials for both strength and radiation shielding, including approximately 4 inches-thick of steel, 3 inches of lead, and 6 inches of neutron radiation shielding.

Yes, used nuclear fuel is radioactive, but it is securely contained and shielded to prevent any harm to the transport employees, the public and workers at our site. All aspects of the transport process are monitored for exposure and must meet the strictest regulations. This ensures that any radiation dose to any member of the public during routine used nuclear fuel transportation, including stops, is barely discernible compared to the public’s normal daily background radiation from rocks, radon gas, cosmic rays, and other natural sources.

As a longtime member of the local community and a parent, I am also an engaged citizen and a stakeholder in this process—and I welcome an informed, energetic discussion about this topic. Based on what I know, I have confidence in the history, science and proven regulatory process of transporting and storing used nuclear fuel.

I encourage your readers to learn more and explore the detailed FAQs posted on ISP’s website: https://interimstoragepartners.com/faqs. You can also drop by the WCS downtown Andrews office or arrange for a guided tour of the WCS site.

Elicia Sanchez is the senior vice president of WCS in Andrews, Texas.

Burkett Shaw
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