Testing completed on DOE’s spent fuel transport railcar

September 28, 2023, 9:18AMRadwaste Solutions
The Atlas railcar carries a test load simulating a shipment of spent nuclear fuel. (Photo: DOE)

The Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy has wrapped up testing of its Atlas railcar, successfully completing a round-trip journey from Pueblo, Colo., to Scoville, Idaho. Built to safety standards set by the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the 12-axle railcar is designed to transport large containers of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

According to the DOE, Atlas could be cleared for operational use before the end of the year.

Watch a video of the railcar in action here:

The trip: For the final test between Colorado and Idaho, Atlas was loaded to its maximum weight with a 480,000-pound test load designed to simulate the heaviest transport container certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The test simulated a full-scale shipment of spent nuclear fuel, carrying steel test weights instead of radioactive cargo.

The train departed from the Transportation Technology Center (TCC) in Pueblo on September 5 for the four-day, round-trip journey to Scoville, collecting data along the way. Atlas was accompanied by a rail escort vehicle (REV), two buffer railcars, and two Union Pacific railroad locomotives. The entire trip logged more than 1,680 total miles.

The four fabricated prototype railcars (Atlas, two buffer railcars, and the REV) are expected to be ready for operational use as soon as the final testing data can be analyzed and documented, and conditional approval is granted by the AAR Equipment Engineering Committee.

Quote: “This milestone underscores the department’s dedication to advancing the safe and secure transportation of radioactive materials, including spent nuclear fuel,” said Patrick R. Schwab, the DOE’s Atlas railcar project manager. “Through the successful completion of the test and the Atlas railcar project, we have delivered a capability for the department to effectively transport spent nuclear fuel to future DOE storage and disposal facilities, filling a key role for successful operation of a nuclear waste management system.”

The design: In 2015, as part of its plans for an integrated nuclear waste management program, the DOE awarded a multiyear, $8.63 million contract to Orano Federal Services, with subcontractors Kasgro Rail and TCC, for the design and fabrication of prototype railcars for nuclear material transportation. The same Orano-led team was awarded a second contract in 2018 for the single-car and multiple-car testing of the Atlas, buffer, and REV railcars.

Based on the design of the U.S. Navy’s M-290 cask railcar, Atlas was built to carry 17 different types of transportation casks loaded with high-level radioactive material. During transport, a single cask is set on top of the railcar deck and rests on a cradle. The cask railcar includes all needed attachment points and the methods to attach each of the cradles to the deck.

The REV was developed in partnership with the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program to replace its aging fleet of escort vehicles. According to the DOE, the collaboration helped reduce the overall cost of the Atlas project, which was approximately $33 million over 10 years and included the development and testing of the Atlas, buffer, and REV railcars.

On track: The DOE said that, going forward, Atlas will undergo some additional testing and travel to the department’s 2024 National Transportation Stakeholders Forum Annual Meeting in Denver, Colo.

The DOE plans to use Atlas and other railcars to support emergency responder training and informational roadshows prior to commencing shipments of spent nuclear fuel to a federal consolidated interim storage facility.

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