Each day thousands of shipments of radioactive materials are transported around the world. These consignments which are carried by road, rail, sea and inland waterways can range from smoke detectors, cobalt sources for medical uses, to nuclear fuel cycle materials for electricity generation.
The transport of radioactive materials has a long history spanning several decades. Over this period a stringent regulatory regime has been developed at both international and national levels. The safety record of these shipments is impressive, in over 50 years there has never been a transport incident that has caused significant radiological damage to people or the environment.
Nuclear fuel cycle
Nuclear power currently supplies around 16% of the world's demand for electricity. The majority of these reactors are either pressurised water reactors or boiling water reactors and in both cases the primary fuel is enriched uranium oxide. The fuel core for these light water reactors typically contains many fuel assemblies consisting of sealed fuel rods, each filled with sintered uranium dioxide pellets.
To sustain this important source of energy, nuclear utilities around the world depend on safe, efficient and reliable transport of the full range of nuclear fuel cycle materials.
Front end and back end operations
Nuclear fuel cycle transports are commonly designated as either front end or back end. The front end covers all the operations from the mining of uranium to the manufacture of new fuel assemblies for loading into the reactors. The back end covers all the operations concerned with the spent fuel which leaves the reactors, i.e. the shipment of spent fuel elements from nuclear power plants to reprocessing facilities for recycling, and the subsequent transport of the products of reprocessing. Alternatively, if the once-through option is chosen, the spent fuel is transported to interim storage facilities pending its final disposal, for instance, into a deep geological repository.
Non-fuel cycle transport
Nuclear power is not the only industry which relies on the transport of radioactive materials. In fact, the vast majority of transports - around 95% - are not fuel cycle related. Radioactive materials are used extensively in medicine, agriculture, research, manufacturing, non-destructive testing and in the exploration of minerals.
All these industries are becoming increasingly global in terms both of products and services. Safe and secure national and international transport of radioactive materials by all modes of transport is essential to support them.