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Scientists put a nuclear waste container through a demanding trip to see if the fuel would break via The Verge

Have nuclear fuel transportation cask, will travel 

Researchers sent a nuclear waste container on a 14,500-mile odyssey by truck, barge, cargo ship, and train in an effort to understand how well radioactive fuel would stand up to travel.

That’s important to find out because one day, the goal is to store all the radioactive fuel that’s used up and spit out by nuclear power plants in the US at a central, underground repository. There’s still a political struggle over where that repository will be, so right now, spent nuclear fuel doesn’t move much around the US. It mostly sits in storage at nuclear power plants or sometimes travels between power plants owned by the same company, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the government agency that oversees the nuclear industry.


But scientists are still learning what actually happens inside those containers — where the spent nuclear fuel is packaged like a radioactive Christmas present. The fuel is made out of hollow metal rods packed with uranium pellets. These rods are bundled together into what’s called a fuel assembly, which is in a basket, inside a canister. That canister is what would get removed from the storage cask at a power plant and put into the transportation container that would go on a truck, train, or barge.

One day, though, if that central repository is ever ready, nuclear fuel will be hitting the road and rail more frequently in the US. We already know that the containers, also known as casks, that the spent nuclear fuel travels in are pretty tough. New container designs go through a series of tests where they’re dropped, lit on fire, and submerged in water before the NRC certifies them for use. None of these containers have leaked in over 40 years of transporting nuclear waste, the NRC says.


What is the Nuclear Triathlon?

The Nuclear Triathlon is a test to understand what shocks and vibrations nuclear fuel would experience during normal conditions of transport. We took surrogate nuclear fuel, so no real nuclear fuel was used or harmed in this experiment. And we drove it by truck through northern Spain, by barge from Spain to Belgium, by ocean liner from Belgium to Baltimore, and then by rail from Baltimore to Pueblo, Colorado, and back again.


In order to be certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they have to be dropped from 30 meters onto an unyielding target. They have to be fully engulfed in a fire for 30 minutes. They have to be dropped on a pole, like a puncture test. And then they have to be immersed in water. All of those tests have to happen in sequence, in order to get certification by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the cask still cannot leak. So we are very, very confident that there is not an accident in transportation that could cause a big problem.

What we didn’t have information on is what happens to the actual fuel. The fuel maybe sat next to the nuclear power plant for 100 years because we don’t have any place to put it. If we transported it, we know the cask won’t leak. But if we wanted to open it up again at the end when it got to its final destination, would we have any concerns that there would be any cracks in the fuel? What our data will show and what the data is pointing to is that the risk of transport making a tiny crack in a fuel rod is pretty much zero.

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