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Radioactive Materials Transported by Cargo Ship

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This page describes radioactive materials being transported by cargo ships into the United States.

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Almost half of incoming cargo to the United States arrives by containers onboard ships. Within the U.S., American merchant marine ships provide essential services to 41 states. While the chances of a transportation accident are small, an accident can result in expensive cleanup or unnecessary exposure of workers or the public. Since we cannot predict transportation accidents, strict packaging requirements are used in the shipment of radioactive material to ensure that even if there is an accident, radioactive material spills or releases do not occur.

Radioactive materials that are used in medical applications – radio pharmaceuticals and radioisotopes – are the most frequently shipped radioactive materials in the United States. Other shipments include low- and high-level radioactive waste; uranium fuel for nuclear power plants; and various gauges and devices for industrial, medical and academic institutions.

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Who is protecting you

The States

In the United States, each state has programs on radiation protection and on the transportation of hazardous materials.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security(DHS)

The DHS Office of Customs and Border Protection operates programs to monitor U.S. Ports of Entry for radioactive material that could pose a threat to the national security.

The DHS Coast Guard is responsible for investigating any ship at sea that has been identified as potentially posing a radiation threat.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission(NRC)

NRC is responsible for protecting the public from the effects of radiation from nuclear reactors, materials, and waste facilities. Regulating the safety of transported radioactive material is the joint responsibility of NRC and the Department of Transportation (DOT). NRC oversees the design and use of special packaging for shipping radioactive materials.

U.S. Department of Transportation(DOT)

DOT oversees transportation safety and security requirements by highway, rail, air and sea. DOT’s Office of Hazardous Materials Safety (OHM) issues regulations on the shipment of hazardous materials. Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations defines and classifies hazardous materials, outlines safety procedures for shipping, and provides strict specifications for containers and packaging of the hazardous materials.

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What you can do to protect yourself

Stringent rules apply to the transportation of radioactive materials by cargo containers, and technology continues to enhance the safety measures being used to keep the public safe. With these rules and safety measures, the risk to the public is very small.
If you do suspect radioactive material may be potentially released from a transportation accident or breached packaging, there are three basic ways to limit unnecessary exposure:

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International Response
March 2012. U.S. Environmental Protection
On this webpage, you can learn about EPA’s work with international organizations to keep people safe from radioactive sources. EPA, the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency work to secure uncontrolled radioactive sources and to prevent future losses.
Radiation Symbols
March 2012. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
On this page, you can see official radiation symbols
State Radiation Programs exit EPA
March 2012. Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors
Here you can find a link to your state radiation protection program.
Radiation Portal Monitors Safeguard America from Nuclear Devices and Radiological Materials
March 2012. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection
This page describes how CBP monitors shipments of scrap metal coming into the U.S. to stop radioactively contaminated materials.
Environmental Management: Packaging and Transportation
March 2012. U.S. Department of Energy
This site provides information on DOE’s transporting of both radioactive and non-radioactive hazardous materials.
Nuclear Materials Transportation
March 2012. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
On this website, you can read NRC’s requirements for the design and manufacture of packages for radioactive materials.

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