An Arkansas newspaper recently reported that a reactor core at the Southwest Experimental Fast Oxide Reactor nuclear test site in Washington County was being raised and then placed into a containment vessel. The vessel will later be sealed and trucked across the country to a waste disposal area in Nevada.
According to the article, this 84,000-pound reactor core was placed into a 20-foot-tall, carbon steel containment vessel shaped “like a big soup can.” The reactor core’s radioactivity could be measured at about 5 rems per hour, about 500 times more than what is measured from a typical X-ray. Work will continue into next month to fill the container with grout and weld it shut in preparation from a two-week long transport by “large, heavy haul” truck to the Nevada National Security Site.
Unfortunately, the article did not mention what precautions were being taken along the route from the Arkansas site to the Nevada site…. or if a practice run had been performed.
Earlier in the year it was reported that a different organization planned and conducted a practice run for this type of trip. Sandia National Laboratories completed a nuclear “triathlon” test run that involved moving a simulated cargo of spent fuel rods over 14,500 miles to record the stress and jolts that fuel undergoes in transit.
Neither article reported on the radiation detection and monitoring equipment that should be included along the way. In the University of Arkansas article, it was reported that there were about 50 workers present from the demolition, crane, and rigging companies, in addition to observers from the state Department of Health. However, there was no mention of the workers, drivers, and the bystanders along the way – and how they will be protected in case something goes wrong.
Granted an 84,000 pound cylinder may not be as fragile as fuel rods, but the journey could bring unexpected accidents. Every precaution must be taken to ensure that the transportation vehicle, and its reactor cargo, are protected against hazardous conditions, so they don’t cause perilous situations.
To be fully prepared, any workers involved in the transport, including drivers and handlers, should carry personal portable radiation detection and identification instruments. And funding should be considered for every community with a response team on the transport route.
Personal Radiation Detectors are pager-sized instruments used for gamma detection, gamma ID, and neutron detection. Any workers involved in the transport, as well as police officers along the route, should wear these instruments as a primary means of locating the source as they walk the area. Electronic personal dosimeters monitor exposure to ionizing radiation in real time and emit both audible and visual alarms so that personnel can react quickly when an acceptable dose rate level is exceeded.
If something did happen, first responders need to quickly identify mixed radioactive surface contamination in facility and field environments, so multi-purpose survey meters are used. These meters are simple, robust, reliable contamination and dose rate measurement tools for characterizing alpha, beta, gamma and X-ray radiation. Also known as Geiger counters, these instruments provide an on-site solution for homeland security personnel, fire brigades, emergency response personnel, agencies involved in decontamination and decommissioning projects and hospital and pharmaceutical industry employees along the route.
Cities and towns along the route may want to have spectroscopic area monitors placed in certain areas to detect and identify radiation on location or from miles away. This type of equipment can deliver high precision gamma and neutron radiation measurements and real-time data collection across a wide range of environments and radiation dose rate levels.
Luckily for the Washington County site there were no issues with the raising of the reactor core. Hopefully there will be no issues with the transportation as well. But one should be prepared. And since additional work at the Washington County site includes removal of reflectors and shielding that must be packaged for proper disposal, the same precautions should be taken when those trips occur as well.
Editor’s Note: Read the previous article: Are Spent Fuel Rods a Road Hazard?