Transport FAQs of used nuclear fuel

Canada is one of the major producers of nuclear substances (radioactive material) in the world and has an excellent safety record for the transport of these substances. More than a million packages carrying a variety of nuclear substances are transported safely in Canada each year. All nuclear substances can only be shipped by a qualified carrier and can only be transported in accordance with strict federal regulations.

Q1. Who oversees the transportation of used nuclear fuel?

Q2. How does the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) ensure that the transportation is done in a safe manner?

Q3. Is it safe to transport used nuclear fuel?

Q4. How is the transportation of used nuclear fuel regulated?

Q5. How safe are the containers that transport the used nuclear fuel?

Q6. What security measures are needed for this type of shipment?

Q7. What would happen in the unlikely event of an accident?

Q8. Is one mode of transport safer than another when it comes to used nuclear fuel?

Q9. Where can I get more information?

Q1. Who oversees the transportation of used nuclear fuel?

A1. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and Transport Canada work together to regulate the transportation of used nuclear fuel. However, the prime responsibility for ensuring the safety of used fuel during transport rests with the consignor who is preparing the shipment. Here is an outline of the various responsibilities:

  • The CNSC – Through the Packaging and Transport of Nuclear Substances Regulations (PTNS Regulations), the CNSC ensures that every package transporting used nuclear fuel conforms to all established safety standards. The CNSC is responsible for certifying the design of the package, verifying that it meets the regulatory requirements, and ensuring that the health, safety and security of the public and the protection of the environment will not be compromised.
  • Transport Canada – Through the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act and related regulations, Transport Canada also shares in the responsibility of ensuring the safe transport of used nuclear fuel. Transport Canada develops safety standards and regulations, provides oversight and gives expert advice to promote public safety in the transportation of dangerous goods (of all classes) by all modes of transport in Canada.

  • Consignor – The person who prepares the shipment. The consignor is responsible for selecting, loading and securing the package. The consignor must ensure that the package complies with all of the requirements specified in both CNSC and Transport Canada regulations. Packages must be categorized and labelled correctly, and must be accompanied by the proper transport documentation. The consignor must also display the appropriate safety marks, verify that employees are properly trained for their positions and, if required, have an approved Emergency Response Assistance Plan (ERAP).

  • Carrier – The person who carries the shipment must ensure that the transport package was properly selected, loaded and secured by the consignor. The carrier is also responsible for appropriately displaying the required dangerous goods safety marks and verifying that employees are suitably trained for their positions.

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Q2. How does the CNSC ensure that the transportation is done in a safe manner?

A2. Consignors are required to submit a transportation program when applying for a licence to transport used nuclear fuel. Transportation programs are designed to protect the health and safety of persons and the environment by meeting or exceeding regulatory requirements.

The programs are assessed by CNSC staff and are used to determine that the consignor is qualified to carry out the activities under the licence and will make adequate provisions for the protection of the environment, the health and safety of the workers and the public, and maintain adequate security.

Transportation programs typically include information on:

  • training of workers and emergency responders
  • maintenance of a radiation protection program
  • management of an emergency response plan
  • maintenance of security measures
  • maintenance of records
  • adherence to all regulatory requirements

CNSC staff conduct audits and program evaluations of transportation programs to independently and objectively assess performance effectiveness and compliance with regulations. Compliance inspections are also carried out by provincial and federal transportation authorities on shipments en route to their destinations.

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Q3. Is it safe to transport used nuclear fuel?

A3. Yes. The very robust transport packages required for used fuel transport are designed, tested and certified to retain their contents under accident conditions. Used fuel has been transported safely nationally and internationally for over 45 years by road, rail, water and air without a single radiological incident. It is a highly regulated activity that needs to meet the stringent requirements of both Transport Canada and the CNSC regulatory requirements before being approved.

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Q4. How is the transportation of used nuclear fuel regulated?

A4. Worldwide regulatory standards are developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a United Nations organization. For transport, all industrialized countries use the IAEA's TS-R-1, Regulations for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material as the basis to regulate the packaging and transport of radioactive materials within their borders.

In Canada, the CNSC has developed the PTNS regulations based on the IAEA's TS-R-1 regulations and is responsible for regulating all aspects of the packaging and transport of radioactive material, including the design, production, use, inspection, maintenance and repair of packages. The CNSC also regulates all phases of transport from the preparation of packages for shipment until unloading at the final destination.

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Q5. How safe are the containers that transport the used nuclear fuel?

A5. Extremely safe. The packages are certified by the CNSC prior to transport. To become certified, they must first undergo strict testing, the requirements of which are set by regulations. Packages are tested to show they are able to resist the cumulative effect of a 9-metre drop onto an unyielding surface, a 30-minute thermal exposure at 800°C, and immersion in 15 metres of water for 8 hours without a breach of containment. Some packages even undergo an immersion test in 200 metres of water for 1 hour. Once the transport package design is shown to be compliant with the regulations, the CNSC issues the certificate.

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Q6. What security measures are needed for this type of shipment?

A6. CNSC regulations require the submission of a transportation security plan for shipments of used fuel. The consignor must prepare a plan to detail the proposed security measures and arrangements for the shipment. A threat assessment must also be carried out in order to identify any credible threats that may place the shipment at risk.

Shipments of used nuclear fuel require security measures such as escort personnel, communications arrangements to contact response forces, security searches prior to shipment, contingency arrangements in case of delay or mechanical breakdown and procedures to be followed during scheduled stops or unscheduled delays.

The transportation security plan is assessed by CNSC staff to ensure it meets all regulatory requirements. All information pertaining to security measures and arrangements for this type of shipment is considered prescribed information and cannot be disclosed to the public. Prescribed information is only provided to persons or agencies with a valid need to know such as police response forces.

For more information, read the regulatory guide Transportation Security Plans for Category I, II or III Nuclear Material (G-208) (PDF).

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Q7. What would happen in the unlikely event of an accident?

A7. The procedures to follow in the event of an accident are defined in the consignor's emergency response plan. The plan details the response actions that should take place, the resources available to mitigate the situation and, ultimately, how to return the accident area to normal. In most cases, the consignor would arrange for an accident investigation team to be immediately sent to the site to determine the cause and impact of the accident and provide expertise in assessment, area monitoring, air sampling, and exposure and contamination control. A second response team would ensure clean-up, recovery and restoration. Because used nuclear fuel is a solid material, contamination would be localized to the immediate area around the container and would be quickly cleaned up in the unlikely event of a release of radioactive material. The consignor is responsible for the cost of response and any cleanup.

The overall safety record of the transport of nuclear substances in Canada has historically been excellent. There have never been any serious injuries, fatalities or environmental consequences attributable to the radioactive nature of such material being transported.

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Q8. Is one mode of transport safer than another when it comes to used nuclear fuel?

A8. The basic philosophy behind the transport of nuclear substances, including used nuclear fuel, is that safety relies heavily on the design of the transport package. Each package design is evaluated to ensure that it meets all of the applicable regulatory requirements specific to various modes of transport. Package designs are combined with additional regulatory controls including labelling, placarding, quality assurance and maintenance records, allowing packages to be carried safely in all modes of transport allowed by the package design such as road, rail, air and sea.

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Q9. Where can I get more information?

A9.For additional information, please read the CNSC fact sheet Regulating the Packaging and Transport of Nuclear Substances in Canada, or contact the CNSC.

You can get additional information on the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act and related regulations on the website of Transport Canada

Contact Transport Canada: tc.gc.ca/eng/contact-us.htm