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Radioactive shipments and security

Approximately three million packages containing radioactive material are transported annually within the United States. Due to the effectiveness of transportation safety standards and regulations, no known deaths or serious injuries have resulted to transportation workers, emergency response personnel or the general public from the radioactive nature of these materials.

State agency roles

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) is designated as Ohio’s routing agency for radioactive materials and spent nuclear fuel. The PUCO works very closely with the Ohio Emergency Management Agency (Ohio EMA) and Ohio Department of Health (ODH) to coordinate and conduct inspections of high-level and special interest radioactive materials shipments, such as spent fuel and radioactive industrial sources.

Federal agency roles

The U.S. Department of Transportation sets the regulations for packages with small amounts of radioactivity, carriers of radioactive material and the conditions of transport (such as routing, vehicle requirements, handling and storage). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates the design, construction, use and maintenance of shipping containers used for shipments containing large amounts of radioactivity.

High-level vs. low-level radioactive material

The NRC differentiates between high-level and low-level radioactive waste. High-level waste consists of spent nuclear reactor fuel and certain wastes resulting from the reprocessing of reactor fuel. All other radioactive material is considered low-level.

Marking, labeling and placarding requirements

Federal regulations require that shippers meet marking and labeling requirements for packages containing radioactive materials. Markings provide the proper shipping name, emergency response identification number and other important information. Labels identify the contents of the package and the level of radioactivity. There are three types of radioactive shipping labels and the packages must be marked correspondingly. Shipments with extremely low levels of radioactivity that do not present a hazard are excluded from labeling requirements.

Vehicles transporting certain shipments of radioactive materials must also be clearly placarded. Some shipments with a high radioactivity level (e.g., high-level waste, spent nuclear fuel, cobalt sources) are identified as highway route controlled quantity shipments and must display the radioactive placard on a square white background.

Rail cars placarded radioactive cannot be placed next to a locomotive or an occupied caboose. A buffer car loaded with any non-radioactive material must be placed between a car carrying radioactive materials and a locomotive or caboose.

Packaging requirements

The most effective way to reduce the risk associated with transporting radioactive materials is to follow the appropriate federal packaging standards. The type of packaging used is determined by the radioactivity, type and form of the material to be shipped.

  • Industrial Packaging is used to transport materials that present little hazard from radiation exposure. This type of container will retain and protect the contents during normal transportation activities. Slightly contaminated clothing, laboratory samples and smoke detectors are examples of materials that may be shipped in industrial packages.
  • Type A packaging is used to transport materials of low radioactivity, such as those used for medical purposes (radiopharmaceuticals) or for research and industrial purposes. These packages must demonstrate their ability to withstand a series of tests without releasing their contents, but will not withstand accidents.
  • Type B packaging is used to transport items such as industrial irradiators and radiation therapy devices. This type of packaging is designed to withstand severe transportation accidents. Spent nuclear fuel, which is highly radioactive, is shipped in a specialized Type B shipping cask that is heavily shielded to minimize radiation levels.

Routing requirements

Carriers of highway route controlled quantity shipments are required to use “preferred routing” which restricts transport to certain interstate highways and alternative routes. The carrier of highway route controlled quantity shipments must select the preferred route to be used and prepare a written plan for NRC showing origin and destination of the shipment, scheduled route, all planned stops and estimated time of departure and arrival. The NRC checks the security of these routes. The route of a highway route controlled shipment is revealed only on a need-to-know basis.

Rail routes are determined by the shipper and railroad companies based on safety and other factors.

In addition, the NRC requires that the time and date of all spent nuclear fuel shipments be protected to guard against any act that could threaten the shipment.

Notification requirements

The shipper of a highway route controlled quantity shipment must notify Ohio EMA seven days in advance of entry into Ohio. Ohio EMA then immediately notifies the PUCO and other appropriate state agencies and, within 24 hours of shipment, alerts local authorities on a need-to-know basis. For non-highway route controlled quantity shipments, the shipper is not required to provide advanced notification, but often does.

Inspection of shipments

When a radioactive placarded shipment prepares to enter Ohio, the PUCO assigns hazardous materials specialists to conduct an inspection. The inspection includes a radiation survey, hazardous materials inspection, vehicle inspection and driver inspection. Inspections are conducted as near to the point of entry into the state as possible.

Radioactive white I label

Radioactive yellow II label



Nearly no radiation. The maximum allowable radioactivity is 0.5 millirem/hr on the package surface.

Low radiation levels. The maximum allowable radioactivity is 50 millirem /hr on the package surface, and one millirem /hr at three feet from the package.

Radioactive yellow III label

Radioactive shipping placard



Higher levels of radiation. Maximum allowable radioactivity is 200 millirem /hr on the package surface, and 10 millirem /hr at three feet from the package. Required for fissile class III materials or large quantity shipments of any radiation level.

Vehicles carrying packages with yellow III labels must have a radioactive placard on both sides and both ends of the vehicle.