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Radioactive Materials Transported by Freight Train

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This page provides an overview on shipping radioactive materials by freight trains and the strict requirements used to prevent a spill or release during an accident.

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Because we cannot predict transportation accidents, strict packaging requirements govern the shipment of radioactive materials. While the chances of a transportation accident are small, an accident that resulted in a spill could result in an expensive cleanup and/or unnecessary exposure to workers or the public. Strict requirements help ensure against radioactive material spills or releases if there is an accident.

Requirements for shipping radioactive materials, such as high-level radioactive waste or spent nuclear fuel, by rail or highway are extremely rigorous. Requirements include specially-designed casks to ensure the integrity of the container under all circumstances, including the forces it would likely experience in a train collision and derailment. Due to the nature radioactive material, special precautions are taken in choosing shipment routes, shipments are tracked either electronically or on paper, and drivers are trained in both general and emergency radiation safety measures.

Radioactive materials have been shipped in the United States for more than fifty years. Each year, roughly three million packages containing radioactive material are transported by trucks, trains, boats and barges, and airplanes. The packages may contain products or wastes, including pharmaceuticals, industrial gauges, laboratory materials and low-level, high-level, and transuranic radioactive wastes.

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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 within states’ borders.

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.

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 Energy(DOE)

DOE is responsible for the shipment of high-level hazardous waste, including spent nuclear fuel. This entails planning and arranging for the transportation of this material.

U.S. Postal Service(USPS)

The USPS establishes restrictions on the shipment of hazardous mail including radioactive material for highway, rail and air.

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What you can do to protect yourself

Stringent rules apply to the transportation of radioactive materials and special packaging is required for the shipment of radioactive material. 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 breeched packaging, there are three basic ways to limit unnecessary exposure:

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Hazardous Materials Division
August 2009. U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration
This site provides general information on the Federal Railroad Administration’s Hazardous Materials Division.
Nuclear Materials Transportation
June 2008. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
This site provides information about the safety regulations put forth by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in regard to radioactive material transportation in the United States.
Pub. 52, Hazardous, Restricted, and Perishable Mail exit EPA
July 1999. U.S. Postal Service
This site provides information on sending hazardous or restricted material in the mail.
State Transportation Web Sites
January 2007. U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration
This site provides links to state transportation websites.
Transportation of Spent Nuclear Fuel
July 2009. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
This site provides regulatory information on the transportation of spent nuclear fuel.

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