Federal Shipments of Transuranic Radioactive Waste in California

Updated: July, 2012

Prepared by the California Energy Commission


  • The United States (US) Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for transporting defense-generated transuranic (TRU) radioactive waste from DOE facilities throughout the US to a permanent geologic disposal facility, called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in southern New Mexico, 26 miles east of Carlsbad. The WIPP facility is located 2,150 feet underground in geologic salt deposits.
  • Since 1999, DOE has shipped TRU waste by truck from twelve DOE sites for permanent disposal at WIPP. These DOE sites include:

    State Department of Energy (DOE) Sites Shipping TRU Waste to WIPP
    California General Electric-Hitachi Vallecitos (GEV) Nuclear Center

    Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)
    Colorado Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site
    Idaho Idaho National Laboratory (INL)
    Illinois Argonne National East
    Nevada Nevada Test Site (NTS)
    New Mexico Los Alamos National Laboratory

    Sandia National Laboratories
    Pennsylvania Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory
    South Carolina Savannah River Site
    Tennessee Oak Ridge National Laboratory
    Washington Hanford Site
    Three of these sites (LLNL, GEV and NTS), as well as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, have transported TRU waste in California.
  • Since 2002, DOE has completed a total of 115 truck shipments of TRU waste in California. These include 98 shipments directly to WIPP from LLNL (18 contact-handled shipments from October 2004 through January 2005), from GEV (32 remotely-handled shipments in 2010), and from NTS (48 contact-handled shipments from January 2004 through November 2005). In addition, DOE transported two shipments of remotely-handled TRU waste in 2002 from the Energy Technology and Engineering Center (ETEC) in southern California to Hanford, Washington, one shipment of contact-handled waste from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to LLNL in 2004, and two shipments of contact-handled waste from Site 300 to LLNL (one in 2004 and one in 2010).
  • In June 2010, DOE began transporting shipments of contact-handled (CH)-TRU waste from LLNL to INL over a new northern California route via Interstate 80 over Donner Summit. The former route through southern California to WIPP was officially closed in 2011. DOE plans to transport all TRU waste that is generated at LLNL to INL where the waste will be characterized and repackaged for shipment to WIPP.
  • DOE transported 12 shipments from sites in California to INL in 2010 including 1 CH-TRU waste shipment from GEV, 1 CH-TRU waste shipment from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and 10 CH-TRU waste shipments from LLNL to INL. No shipments were made in California in 2011 and none are planned for 2012 and 2013.

Description of the Waste and Its Risks

  • The waste being transported and disposed of at WIPP is TRU waste. This type of waste has been generated at federal facilities from nuclear weapons production and research and development since the 1940s. The wastes consist of such items as laboratory clothing, tools, glove boxes, rubber gloves, glassware and air filters and are contaminated with small amounts of radioactive materials such as plutonium and americium, and small amounts of hazardous chemicals.
  • Most of the waste planned for transport in California is CH-TRU waste, which means the radiation it emits is not very penetrating and does not require lead or other types of heavy shielding to protect workers or the public. These containers can be handled with minimum protective gear. However, the majority of shipments from GEV will be remote-handled (RH)-TRU waste, which means the radiation emitted from the waste is very penetrating and therefore requires heavy shielding.
  • Inhalation and ingestion are the primary radiation hazards posed by TRU waste. Even in very small quantities, certain transuranic materials, such as plutonium, can deliver significant internal radiation doses if taken into the body.
  • Most of the TRU waste in California is generated at LLNL. Initially, until the spring of 1990, LLNL waste was trucked to NTS for storage. However, since that time, TRU waste generated at LLNL is stored onsite until it can be transported to WIPP or INL. Since 2010, TRU waste shipments from LLNL will be made to INL for waste characterization before being shipped from INL to WIPP.
  • DOE estimates there will be over 37,000 shipments from 10 major DOE sites and several smaller DOE facilities to WIPP during a 35-year period between 1999 and 2034. There have been over 10,640 shipments directly to WIPP since these shipments began in March 1999. This does not include TRU waste shipments between DOE sites, for example, shipments from LLNL to INL. WIPP shipments travel through at least 22 states and the lands of at least 11 tribal governments.

California’s Policy on TRU Waste Shipments

  • Since 1989, California’s Governor designated the California Energy Commission (Energy Commission) as the lead state agency for planning the proposed DOE shipments of TRU waste in California. The Energy Commission is responsible for coordinating activities of other state agencies that will be involved with the WIPP shipments. These agencies include the California Highway Patrol (CHP), the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA), the California Department of Public Health - Radiologic Health Branch, the California Environmental Protection Agency, the California Department of Fish and Game, the California Department of Transportation, and the California Public Utilities Commission Rail Safety Branch. The Energy Commission and these agencies have prepared several background papers and provide comments on WIPP transportation safety issues and policies.
  • Along with ten other western states, California has been actively involved since 1989 in the efforts of the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) and DOE to cooperatively develop a comprehensive safety program for shipments to WIPP. New Mexico and Idaho co-chair the WGA Technical Advisory Group for WIPP Transport. As part of the WGA-DOE safety program, the Energy Commission has coordinated California’s input to federal plans and policies for these shipments. The Energy Commission has prepared background information to inform Californians of DOE’s shipment plans, the WGA WIPP transport accident prevention and emergency preparedness program, and California’s issues and concerns.

Shipping Containers

  • Two shipping containers, the TRUPACT-II (Transuranic Packaging Transporter) and HalfPACT, are used for transporting CH-TRU waste to WIPP for permanent disposal. In addition, two containers, the RH-72 B and CNS 10-160B, are used for RH-TRU waste transport. TRUPACT-II is an extremely sturdy, reusable shipping cask. Inside the TRUPACT-II, the waste is packaged in 55-gallon steel drums or steel boxes. Each TRUPACT-II holds up to 14 55-gallon drums or two boxes. A WIPP tractor-trailer typically carries three TRUPACT II containers per truck, although some may carry only one or two TRUPACT II containers. In addition a HalfPACT is used for contact-handled shipments and holds up to seven 1000-pound waste drums. All RH-TRU waste is transported in one of two casks, which are the CNS 10-160B cask and the RH-72 B cask. The RH-TRU waste from GE Vallecito was shipped in the RH-72B cask (3 drums of waste per shipment). The cask is heavily shielded by lead and protected by impact limiters at both ends of the cask. RH-TRU waste has a higher radiation dose rate than CH-TRU waste at the surface of the shipping container, but, when transported, the RH-TRU waste and the CH-TRU waste have the same dose rate limit on the outside of the shipping cask due to heavy lead shielding in the RH cask.
  • The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved these shipping casks and has issued a certificate of compliance for use of these casks for transporting this waste. They are constructed to withstand severe accidents without releasing their contents, as confirmed by a series of stringent tests.
  • Shipments to WIPP are required to be placarded, per US Department of Transportation (DOT) requirements, if: (1) the load contains a Highway Route Controlled Quantity of radioactive material, or (2) the radiation level from the package exceeds 50 millirem/hour on contact or 1 millirem/hour at one meter from the package's surface.

Contract Carrier

  • The DOT sets standards for drivers of trucks that carry hazardous materials. DOE, recognizing the heightened public interest in radioactive material shipments, agreed to go beyond (exceed) these regulations for its WIPP drivers and carriers.
  • DOE adopted rigorous driver and carrier performance requirements to ensure that only high quality drivers and trucks are used for WIPP shipments. The drivers must have extensive, accident-free experience and are tested for drug and alcohol abuse. States conduct regular safety audits of the carriers.

Safety Inspections

  • All TRU waste shipments are inspected by state safety inspectors using enhanced truck safety inspection standards. These inspections take place before the trucks leave DOE sites and are periodically done along the route.
  • Trucks must be in top working condition. Inspections include brakes, tires, lights, turn signals, cask tie downs and other items. Drivers' logs are checked to ensure drivers have not been too long at the wheel. Radiation surveys of the shipping containers are done to ensure that they meet radiological safety standards.

Accident Prevention and Emergency Response

  • Over 90 percent of the TRU waste is located in western states. The WGA and DOE have worked together over the past two decades to develop a transportation safety and emergency response program, including a set of transport safety and emergency response protocols that exceed federal safety requirements. These protocols have been approved and endorsed in a Memorandum of Understanding between the WGA and the US Secretary of Energy for use in these shipments. The protocols include use of specially trained drivers, truck and cask inspections, shipment tracking (using satellite-based tracking and communication systems), weather and road condition checks prior to departure, safe parking, route selection protocols, training for state and local emergency responders, and emergency response plans.

California's Preparation

  • Since 1989, California's preparation for TRU waste shipments to WIPP has been through an interagency working group of state agencies called the California Nuclear Transport Working Group (Working Group), coordinated by the Energy Commission. The Governor designated the Energy Commission to represent California on the WGA WIPP Technical Advisory Group (TAG) in 1990.
  • The Working Group is comprised of senior staff from eight California agencies with regulatory authority or operational responsibilities with respect to radioactive material shipment safety and emergency response: the Department of Fish and Game, Department of Public Health, Department of Transportation, Energy Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, Highway Patrol, Emergency Management Agency, and the Public Utilities Commission Railroad Safety. These state agencies, in cooperation with the WGA and the DOE, have prepared a California Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) Emergency Response Plan and Transportation Procedures, which is updated by Cal EMA, for these shipments.
  • To help ensure that these shipments are conducted safely and that emergency response preparation is in place, the following is being done:

    1. Shipment Inspections and Escorts: The CHP inspects all shipments originating in California and escorted the initial shipments in California. Prior to departure, trucks and casks must pass a rigorous vehicle safety inspection by CHP inspectors and DOE.
    2. Emergency Preparedness: Cal EMA coordinates planning and emergency response preparation for WIPP shipments. Since 2000, California has received funding to plan and prepare for these shipments. Funds have been used to develop state plans for responding to an accident involving TRU waste shipments, to train inspectors for shipment inspections, and to train and equip state and local emergency responders along shipment routes in California. Emergency response training and radiological detection instruments have been provided to public safety personnel in counties along the routes.
    3. Routes and Advanced Notification: The CHP is the lead agency for designating routes for highway radioactive material shipments, is the Governor's designee for advance notice of specified radioactive material shipments, and represents California on the Security Subcommittee of the WGA WIPP TAG.
    4. Shipment Tracking: Shipments are tracked by the Cal EMA and the CHP using the DOE TRANSCOM satellite-based tracking and communication system. TRANSCOM users, which include authorized DOE, state, and tribal users, have the ability to track shipments, shipping schedules, bills of lading, and emergency response information.
    5. Bad Weather and Road Conditions: TRU waste shipments must be planned to avoid adverse weather or bad road conditions. Weather and road condition checks are conducted prior to departure. The California Department of Transportation and the CHP provide information on road and highway conditions along the routes through California. The CHP has identified safe parking areas along shipment routes for use in the event of bad weather or road conditions during transit in California.
    6. Schedule Shipments to Avoid Peak Tourist Events: Shipments are scheduled to avoid holidays, peak traffic congestion periods, and peak tourist events along routes.


  • Under WGA/DOE protocols, DOE is required to identify routes that are acceptable to the states along the routes prior to shipments. DOE has agreed with states to follow the US Department of Transportation routing guidelines for radioactive material shipments. DOE primarily uses the interstate highways for WIPP shipments and consults with states regarding the use of routing alternatives. DOE has only used alternate routes for WIPP shipments that were agreed to or designated by states.
  • In 1999, California officials objected to DOE's increasing use of predominantly California routes in southeastern California via State Route 127 for shipments of nuclear waste to NTS from federal facilities in eastern states. There are shorter, more direct, and better quality alternate routes in Nevada, to and from NTS, that have more timely emergency response capability than California routes in that region.
  • DOE originally planned to begin shipments from NTS through California to WIPP in July 2003, using routes that had been formally objected to by California officials. However, DOE postponed these shipments, following requests by the WGA and Senator Dianne Feinstein for DOE to postpone these shipments to allow time for further routing negotiations among DOE, WGA, California, Nevada and other affected states.
  • The WGA mediated negotiations between the affected states and DOE regarding these routes. In the spirit of cooperation, California, through WGA, offered a compromise which would allow DOE to use the California route via State Route 127 for the first half of the NTS to WIPP shipments, as long as DOE and states agreed to an alternate route and timetable for the second half of shipments. California further conditioned these shipments upon DOE's agreeing to certain terms: 1) the first set of shipments would be completed in 2004, 2) the second set of shipments would exclude predominantly California routes, and 3) no large quantity shipments, called "highway route-controlled quantity shipments", would use this route without California's prior approval.
  • DOE began shipments from the NTS through California to WIPP in January 2004. DOE then halted the NTS shipments to allow time for further waste characterization to certify the waste's compliance with WIPP acceptance criteria. DOE then resumed shipments in late summer 2004. DOE began the shipments from LLNL to WIPP in October 2004 and completed the initial set of shipments from NTS and LLNL to WIPP in 2005. These LLNL shipments, as well as the GEV shipments, to WIPP used the I-5 corridor south through Bakersfield, State Route 58 to I-40 to Arizona. DOE began shipments from LLNL and 1 GEV shipment in June 2010 to the INL using a new northern California route via Interstate-80 over Donner Summit.

More Information

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