Nuclear site in Takahama, Japan, under heavy guard for loading of rejected plutonium MOX fuel, which is being returned to the UK by ship.
Nuclear transports involve significant risks to human health and the environment. One cask full of highly radioactive spent fuel elements contains approximately as much radiation as was released by the Chernobyl accident. As well as being vulnerable to accidents, transports could be targets for terrorist attacks or the theft of fissile materials.
The transportation regulations in most countries are based on variousversions of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) "Regulationson the Safe Transport of Radioactive Materials." These regulations weredrafted with the aim of guaranteeing the ability of the nuclearindustry to operate, not to guarantee nuclear safety. The waste istransported in casks that the nuclear industry claims are safe becausethey have to undergo some crash tests.
But in reality the standards for the transportation of spent fuel do not reflect real accident conditions. Spent fuel casks and other type B containers are required to survive drops of only 9 metres. Even less burdensome are the fire standards whereby containers are required to resist temperatures of 800° C for up to 30 minutes. Studies, including those commissioned by Greenpeace, have shown that in real accidents, for example at sea or in tunnels, fires often burn at temperatures exceeding 800° C and for considerably longer than 30 minutes. Average ship fires for example burn for 23 hours, and at over 1000 degrees.
Reassurances from industry and governments that the containers are "safe" have been challenged by governments, independent experts and citizens. For example, sea shipments of nuclear waste and plutonium between Europe and Japan have been vociferously opposed by tens of governments in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Africa and the South Pacific.
Public at Risk
Transports in western Europe, in particular in France and Germany have been opposed by communities and thousands of ordinary people. This opposition has been bolstered by revelations of contamination, accidents, and cover-ups. For more than two years (1998-2000) all movement of spent fuel from Germany to France was suspended following disclosures of external contamination of containers above the permitted level.
While the nuclear industry had ambitions to move large amounts of nuclear material by air, they have been thwarted in most of their plans due to the evidence of weak standards and the real concerns of both professional institutions (such as international pilot's federation), politicians and the general public. The same drop test standard of 9 metres when applied to aircraft carrying nuclear containers, highlights the fundamentally flawed approach of the nuclear industry.
Highly sensitive nuclear transports, including those carrying large amounts of plutonium, are extremely vulnerable to deliberate attack. The fundamental problem is that materials that are directly usable in nuclear weapons, are treated like any other commodity.
In addition to the profound safety issues, nuclear transports are conducted without prior notification, let alone the consent, of the communities or countries along the transport routes. All of these factors have led to the continued growth of opposition to nuclear transports by many communities, environmentalists and politicians around the world.
Find out more:
Remember that renewables are the future!
Check out our story about nuclear transports recklessly endangering Pacific States
Read this review of aspects of the marine transport of radioactive materials from Australia
Find out where radioactive shipments are being made in the USA
Read about Nuclear Titanics, our report into the dangers of MOX shipments through our oceans
Download our Nuclear Glossary.