CIAO DATE: 11/01

Terrorism Considerations in the Transportation of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste

Nuclear Waste Project Office
State of Nevada
Fact Sheet

The realities of today's world and the increasing sophistication of both domestic and international terrorist organizations require that any analysis of risks associated with the transportation of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) or high-level radioactive waste (HLW) must include an evaluation of the consequences of a successful terrorist attack on SNF/HLW shipments to a repository or central interim storage facility. While the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) conducted some analyses in the 1970s and 1980s of the existing SNF shipping containers to evaluate their susceptibility to several types of attacks, those studies are no longer adequate and do not reflect either the new generation transport casks that would be used for future shipments or developments with respect to terrorist capabilities and weapons that could be used in today's world.

Legislation under consideration by Congress would result in tens of thousands of shipments of SNF and HLW to an interim storage facility in Nevada beginning as early as 1999. Such shipments would affect 43 states and thousands of cities and communities. A September, 1996 report prepared for the State of Nevada found that such shipments could be much more numerous and more likely to impact the nation's highways in a major way than previously thought. The report, The Transportation of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Waste: A Systematic Basis for Planning and Management at National, Regional, and Community Levels, by Planning Information Corporation, concludes that, if shipments are required to begin in the next three years (as would be the case under proposed legislation), as many as 79,300 truck shipments would be required to move spent fuel and highly radioactive wastes from reactor sites around the country to a storage facility in Nevada. Those shipments would involve 62.3 million cumulative miles on 13,700 linear miles of the nation's public highways. Another 12,600 rail shipments totaling 14 million miles on 18,800 linear miles of the country's railroad would also be needed.


During the 1970s and 1980s, NRC evaluated and re-evaluated the consequences of terrorist attacks. In 1984, NRC concluded that the consequences of a terrorist attack on a shipping cask using explosives would not be significant in terms of the amount of radiation released (relative to cask contents) or the resulting health effects and subsequently proposed lessened security requirements for shipments. NRC summarized its findings regarding the estimated release of radioactive materials following a successful terrorist attack using a shaped explosive 30 times larger than a typical anti-tank weapon (1970's vintage) against a spent fuel shipping cask. Their findings indicated that the explosive would carve an approximately 3-inch diameter hole through the cask wall and into the spent fuel, causing the release of 2/100,000 of the total fuel weight (~10 grams of fuel) in an inhalable form. (U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Transporting Spent Fuel: Protection Provided Against Severe Highway and Railroad Accidents, March, 1987).

NRC's consequence analysis focused on the projected human health effects of such a release. Assuming an attack on a truck cask carrying a single pressurized water reactor (PWR) fuel assembly, researchers found that the average radiological consequence of a release in a heavily populated urban area such as New York City would be no early fatalities and less than one (0.4) latent cancer fatality. When more unfavorable circumstances were considered, for example, assuming the attack occurred at evening rush hour on a business day in the most unfavorable location for a release, the peak consequence was found to be "no early fatalities and less than three (2.9) latent cancer fatalities." For larger casks containing more fuel, the NRC found that "the upper bound of release would likely increase roughly in proportion to the square root of the total number of assemblies contained in a cask." For example, the release - and the expected peak consequence - from an attack on a multi-purpose canister (MPC) containing 21 civilian PWR assemblies would be about 13 latent cancer fatalities. NRC concluded that, "on the basis of energy release from the explosive, it is expected that the number of fatalities from a sabotage explosion would be greater than the number of radiologically induced fatalities."

DOE-sponsored studies, which included one full-scale and several small-scale experiments, produced similar results. An explosive attack on a full-scale cask containing one fuel assembly was calculated to release a maximum of 17 grams of spent fuel. Researchers calculated the peak consequences of a 17 gram release to be "no early fatalities and about 7 latent cancer fatalities." [NRC, "Modification of Protection Requirements for Spent Fuel Shipments: Proposed Rule," Federal Register, Vol. 49, No. 112 (June 8, 1984), Pp.23868-23869]

Previous Analyses Inadequate

There has been considerable criticism attacking both the methodology and conclusions of these federal agency studies and NRC's subsequent proposal (which has never been formally adopted) to reduce the standards for assuring shipment security. Four issues are especially important when considering the NRC's 1984 analysis relative to the nuclear waste transportation system being designed for future shipments to a repository at Yucca Mountain or a central interim storage facility at the Nevada Test Site:

  1. NRC underestimated the potential damage to the cask and its spent fuel as a result of an attack with explosives. The full-scale test conducted by DOE did not use weaponry equivalent to the currently best available armor-piercing weapons. NRC underestimated the damage and subsequent release of an attack using more than one weapon. The casks being designed today for future shipments have thinner walls and four-times larger payloads. NRC acknowledged that spent fuel subjected to higher burn-up (e.g., fuel that has been irradiated longer and consequently contains higher concentrations of certain radionuclides) would result in 45 percent greater consequences.

  2. NRC underestimated the potential health effects of an attack resulting in a release. The NRC analysis did not adequately assess health effects, especially health effects other than cancers, from the release of larger-than-respirable particles of spent fuel or from direct radiation resulting from loss of cask shielding. Such effects could be especially important for emergency response, law enforcement, and recovery and cleanup personnel. The NRC analysis did not specifically consider health effects for especially vulnerable members of the public such as pregnant women and unborn children.

  3. NRC did not evaluate the standard economic impacts of an attack resulting in a release. The NRC economic impact analysis did not consider the cost of securing the scene of the attack, recovering and removing the damaged cask, and cleaning up and disposing of all radioactive materials released by the attack. In certain locations, these costs could be high even for a very small amount of radioactive material released. NRC also ignored potential economic losses suffered by businesses in the vicinity of an attack.

  4. NRC did not evaluate the special economic impacts of an attack resulting in a release. From the standpoint of socioeconomic impacts, the NRC's single most significant finding was that a successful terrorist attack could actually breach a cask and cause a release of materials. For assessing economic and social impacts driven by public perception of risk and stigma, the amount of radioactive material released is less important than the credible possibility of a release in the event of an attack. NRC did not evaluate the economic and social impacts of such an attack or the impacts of public fear of an attack.

A Realistic Approach to Terrorism Risk is Needed

New, comprehensive studies of terrorism risk in the shipment of SNF and HLW must avoid the inadequacies of the NRC's previous analyses. An integrated and unconstrained approach will be required if safety standards adequate to protect the public from the consequences of possible future terrorist action against such shipments are to be developed and instituted. This means examining variables such as likely methods of attack, potential locations for attack, outcomes of terrorist actions, and shipment vulnerabilities and cask performance.

Terrorism risks and the consequences of terrorist acts will be conditioned by the attack methods employed. Studies must consider a range of attack methods, such as attacking the cask without actually capturing it using one or more rocket-propelled armor piercing weapons; attacking the cask after capture using one or more high-energy explosive devices (e.g., military or civilian shaped charges, massive truck bomb); damaging the transportation infrastructure to cause an accident that subjects the cask to catastrophic impacts (e.g., destroying a bridge causing truck or train to fall; destroying a tunnel causing truck or train to be crushed; damaging track or signals to cause high-speed derailment; blowing up fuel storage near tracks or roadway as shipment is passing, etc.).

Location also plays an important part in identifying and assessing the risks of terrorism in shipping SNF and HLW from generator sites to a repository or central storage facility. Examples of the variables introduced into the risk assessment by location include:

  1. Rural locations near environmentally sensitive activities and resources such as farms, ranches, surface and underground water supplies, resorts, wildlife refuges, parks, and other public recreation facilities;

  2. Suburban locations near residences and difficult-to-evacuate facilities such as schools, hospitals, airports, shopping malls, industrial plants, amusement parks, sports stadiums, race tracks, and concert halls;

  3. Highly populated urban locations, especially downtown office and shopping districts, hotels and convention centers, and specialized tourism areas such as the Las Vegas Strip; and

  4. Locations of special events such as the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and other major sporting events, major international trade shows or conventions, and national political party conventions.

The outcome of a terrorist attack on a SNF or HLW shipment can vary according to the type of attack, the weaponry used, the location, and other variables. It is important to consider a range of terrorist attack outcomes such as:
  1. Cask is breached, contents damaged, radioactive materials released, radiation emission from loss of shielding;

  2. Cask is damaged with no release of radioactive materials, but there is radiation emission from loss of shielding;

  3. Cask is damaged with no release and no loss of shielding; and

  4. Cask is undamaged (attack fails completely), but the act/attempt itself has ramifications.

Two aspects of cask design are especially important for assessing the vulnerability of SNF and HLW shipments to successful terrorist attacks. Different shipping container designs could perform very differently in response to an attack:
  1. Cask wall materials and thickness: For example, the large MPC rail transport cask walls would be comprised of 4.25" of stainless steel, 1.5" of depleted uranium, and 0.5" of lead; the MPC canister shell inside the transport cask adds 1.0" of stainless steel. The Nuclear Assurance Corporation Storage/Transportation rail cask (NACS/T) walls are comprised of 4.1" of stainless steel and 3.7" of lead. The proposed new high-capacity truck casks designed for DOE would have much thinner walls than rail casks. The General Atomics GA-4 walls are comprised of 2.0" of stainless steel and 2.63" of depleted uranium.

  2. Diameter of the cask cavity and the overall cask: For example, the large MPC rail transport cask cavity is 61.0" in diameter, and the overall diameter is about 85". The NACS/T cask cavity is about 71" in diameter, and the overall diameter of the cask is about 96". The square-shaped GA-4 cask cavity is about 19" across, and the overall body diameter is about 37".

Anti-Tank and Armor Piercing Weapons Pose Major Threat

There are serious questions about how well past NRC and DOE tests simulated the effects of weapons currently available for possible use by a terrorist group. Guerrilla armies around the world are known to be equipped with older anti-armor missiles such as the Soviet RPG-7 and the American M72. Such weapons may be considered obsolete relative to modern battle tank armor. However, with the ability to penetrate up to 10 - 14 inches of armor plate, they could pose a considerable threat to a nuclear waste shipping cask. Terrorists could conceivably obtain one of the dozen or more anti-tank weapons currently capable of penetrating 12 - 30 inches of tank armor.

The armor penetration capability of currently available weapons that could be used to attack a shipping cask is likely to be greater and more effective than the capability that was assumed in the DOE and NRC assessments of the 1970s and 1980s. One of the best known anti-tank weapons, the Milan missile, illustrates several general characteristics that should be considered in a terrorism risk assessment, including:

A weapon such as a Milan missile could conceivably penetrate or even perforate a large transport cask containing spent nuclear fuel. It therefore represents the type of weapon that needs to be evaluated in a terrorism risk assessment for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste transportation to a Yucca Mountain repository or some other storage facility.

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