Nuclear Waste Transportation Concerns in the U.S.

Wade Avery
July 16, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015


Fig. 1: The dry casks used for storage and transportation of nuclear waste. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Worldwide there are about 20 million consignments of all sizes containing radioactive waste are routinely transported annually using railways, public roads, and ships. These containers are usually highly secure and designed for safety during transportation. Since 1971 there have been more than 20,000 shipments of used radioactive fuel and waste. Although there have been accidents in the past, there has never been one where a container of radioactive waste has been compromised or leaked. In the U.S., the prevailing solution involves using railways and legal-weight and heavy haul trucks on major transportation corridors to ship 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel to repositories such as Yucca Mountain. [1] The goal of these transportation systems is to ease congestion at U.S. nuclear power plants and permanently dispose of this nuclear waste. The primary routes of transportation identified by DOE would be along the Union Pacific mainlines from Chicago and Kansas City via Gibbon (Nebraska), Cheyenne, and Salt Lake City. These routes would also impact other major U.S. cities such as Atlanta, Buffalo, Cleveland, Nashville, St. Louis, and San Bernardino. [1]

Major Concerns

With over 123 million people residing in 703 counties crossed by DOE highway routes and 106 million residing in counties crossed by DOE rail routes, there is major public concern over the transportation of nuclear waster in the U.S. [1] One hurdle is that the manufacturers of the dry casks needed for transportation of radioactive material cannot produce enough casks to keep pace with the large-scale transfer from reactors sites to repositories. [2] Further, limited availability of infrastructure and site personnel will make the transportation process of these casks incredibly expensive. [2] In the case of Yucca Mountain in the U.S. there are transportation issues raised because there is no rail transportation to the site and it would require the construction of a $1 Billion super rail, with even the smallest distances of the track making for the largest railway construction in the U.S. since World War I. [1] Further, environmental approvals, right-of-way acquisition, and litigation could further halt the construction of the railway. There are further concerns of transportation methods in the U.S. becoming the targets of terrorist activity, which would in turn increase the likelihood of a terrorist attack occurring on U.S. soil involving radioactive material. [1] A Nevada-sponsored study of potential attacks on transported dry casks using a common military demolition device, such as a charge or missile warhead, could cause up to 1,800 latent cancer fatalities and a clean up cost of over $10 billion. [1] The state of Nevada sponsored a study of the July 2001 Baltimore rail tunnel fire and concluded it would have caused a major release of radioactive material. Due to the extremely high temperatures of the fire (up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit) and length of the blaze (over 3 days), a rail cask could have released enough radioactive material to contaminate a 32 square mile area. [1] The clean up for such an event would cost over $13 billion and potentially cause up to 28,000 cancer deaths over the next 50 years. [1] Going forward, it appears that these transportation concerns will be very expensive to address as the DOE is facing and will continue to face high levels of public skepticism and political backlash in attempting to create viable transportation routes and methods to repositories such as Yucca Mountain and WIPP.

© Wade Avery. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] F. Dilger and R. Halstead, "The Next Species of Trouble: Spent Nuclear Fuel Transportation in the United States," Am. Behav. Sci. 46, 796 (2003).

[2] R. Rosner and R. Lordan, "Why America Should Move Toward Dry Cask consolidated Interim Storage of Used Nuclear Fuel," Bull. Atomic Scientists 70, 48 (2014).