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How are radioactive materials transported?

  • Each year, altogether more than half a million packages containing radioactive materials are transported in Germany.
  • Radioactive materials for measuring, research and medical purposes represent the major part of the transports.
  • In terms of transport it is vital that safety is guaranteed by the package itself.
  • Under the regulations for the transport of dangerous goods, the BfE is responsible for granting design approvals for transport packages.

The application of radioactive materials in many areas of social life, such as the medical field (diagnostics, therapy), technology (radiographic examinations), research, or energy production (nuclear fuel supply and waste management), often requires that these radioactive materials be transported. Radioactive materials for measuring, research and medical purposes represent the major part of the transports. Each year, altogether more than half a million packages containing radioactive materials are transported in Germany.

Mainly the so-called "CASTOR transports" are in the spotlight, though. CASTOR is the abbreviation of "Cask for Storage and Transport of Radioactive Material" and characterises different package designs. Among others, these packages are used for the transport and intermediate storage of spent fuel elements and high-level radioactive waste from the reprocessing of nuclear fuels. Furthermore, such packages were used for the transport of spent fuel elements from German nuclear power plants to reprocessing plants in France and in the United Kingdom (UK). According to the consensus agreement between the federal government and the utilities on the nuclear phase-out the transports to reprocessing plants stopped on 30 June 2005.

Concept of "Safe Package"

In terms of transport it is vital that safety is guaranteed by the package itself. The basis for this are the recommendations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that have been implemented world-wide in the legal provisions for the transport of radioactive materials.

The safety philosophy of the provisions for the transport of hazardous goods is based on the concept of the "safe package" which can be transported with little operative and administrative measures across all modes of transport. Accordingly, safety-related requirements are made on the package (packaging and content), depending on the type and amount (potential danger) of the radioactive material to be transported ("graded" packaging requirements). They range from general requirements on excepted packages with very limited content up to accident-safe-designed Type B and Type C packages containing radioactive materials of high activity. CASTOR containers are examples of the Type B packages, the so-called "accident-safe packages". These casks must resist the repercussions of even the most severe accidents, maintaining their safety function with regard to

  • The enclosure of the radioactive content (tightness),
  • The shielding of the radioactive radiation,
  • The discharge of the heat emitted by the content, and
  • Ruling out the occurrence of a nuclear chain reaction (criticality safety).

Such type-B packages are subject to authorisation by the BfE. The casks’ compliance with the type-B characteristics required by law must be documented prior to their official licensing, applying different methods such as original tests, model tests and theoretical evidence.

Technical safety in terms of transport of radioactive materials is thus ensured first and foremost by the characteristics of the package.

Approval of transport packages

Under the regulations for the transport of dangerous goods, the Federal Office for Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BfE) is responsible for granting design approvals for transport packages. It has taken over this task on 30. July 2016 from the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) that had been responsible until then. The BfE considers the radiological aspects such as radiation shielding and criticality safety.

Mechanical and thermal characteristics, tightness and quality assurance are examined by the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM) and confirmed by a certificate. On the basis of these two examinations the BfS grants the package design approval licence.

Authorisation of transports

According to nuclear law, the BfE is also competent for the authorisation of transports of nuclear fuels and large sources. This task is among those that were taken over from the BfS on 30 July 2016. Transport licences are only granted if the provisions of nuclear law and hazardous goods law are complied with. More detailed information about the transport licences granted by the BfE and the BfS can be found in a summary table (in German only).

Supervision of nuclear fuel transports is regulated as follows:

  • Pursuant to nuclear law and dangerous goods regulations, the supervision of the transports of nuclear fuels is with the federal state authorities for the transport modes of road, inland waterways and sea.
  • For transports by plane, the Länder authorities are also responsible for the supervision pursuant to nuclear law, whereas the supervision pursuant to dangerous goods regulations is with the Luftfahrt-Bundesamt.
  • The Federal Railway Authority is responsible for the supervision of transports by rail pursuant to nuclear law and dangerous goods regulations.
State of 2018.12.13

© Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management