Transportation methods

Large amounts of radioactive materials have been transported in Canada since the 1930s. At that time, the Canadian government, military, and industry already had extensive experience in transporting hazardous materials such as munitions, chemicals, and petroleum products. Over 70 years later, Canadian organizations are still building on their experience in transporting, handling, and storing radioactive and other hazardous materials in Canada and internationally.

Some of the measures that contribute to safe management of both radioactive and other hazardous materials include:

  • safe engineering of vehicles and containers;
  • qualified personnel receiving sound procedures and training;
  • inventory tracking and accountability;
  • independent, professional regulatory bodies; and
  • careful study and analysis of incidents.

Securing transportation

used fuel cask

Type B package being loaded onto a dock. Source: Nuclear Fuel Transport Co. Ltd.

Nuclear facilities depend on the safe, efficient, and reliable transportation of the full range of nuclear fuel cycle materials. This includes all operations, beginning with the mining of uranium, to the manufacturing of new fuel bundles, to the eventual shipment of spent fuel to reprocessing plants or storage facilities.

For security reasons, the Canadian nuclear industry accounts for all uranium from the moment it leaves the mine until its final storage. Still, the measures needed to handle uranium safely depend on where they are in the cycle. For example, the uranium ore brought from the mines and the uranium oxide concentrate (yellowcake) produced in mills are not soluble in water and can easily be recovered in the event of a spill – and, until uranium fuel is actually used in  a reactor, the materials are not dangerously radioactive.

Many of the same principles apply to transporting nuclear isotopes for applications outside of the generation of power, such as food irradiation, crop improvements, industrial gauges and non-destructive testing, and medical diagnosis and therapy.

Types of packages

For packaging of nuclear materials, Canada has adopted the standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which are based on the characteristics of nuclear material they contain, regardless of the mode of transportation:

  • Ordinary industrial containers are sufficient for low-activity materials such as uranium ore and uranium oxide concentrate (yellowcake).
  • Type A packages are designed to withstand minor accidents, and are used for medium-activity materials, such as medical or industrial radioisotopes.
  • Type B packages are robust and very secure casks used for used fuel and highly radioactive waste. These packages have shielding for gamma and neutron radiation, even under extreme accident conditions. Type B packages are required to undergo stringent testing, which can include free-drop testing, puncture testing, thermal testing, immersion testing, and simulated aircraft accidents:
            • a 9-metre (30-foot) free-fall onto an unyielding surface;
            • a 1-metre (40-inches) free-fall onto a steel rod;
            • a 30-minute, fully-engulfing fire at 800°C (1475°F); and
            • an 8-hour immersion under water.

Package tests

Source: US NRC.

  • Small amounts of high-activity materials, such as plutonium, are transported by aircraft with Type C packages. These offer even greater protection in accident scenarios than Type B packages do. They can survive being dropped from an aircraft at cruising altitude.

General Plastics, a manufacturing and quality-assurance company, has posted a video of several drop tests on its YouTube channel.