The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has tasked researchers at six organizations to develop monitoring techniques to ensure nuclear materials remain stable during transit under both normal conditions and in case of an accident.

Researchers from the University of Houston, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Southern California, the University of Minnesota, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Anatech Corporation will work to ensure that spent nuclear fuel can be safely transported from temporary storage at nuclear plants around the United States to interim storage sites that will be designated by DOE—and eventually to permanent storage. No permanent disposal site has yet been approved.

Spent nuclear fuel that is currently stored in casks at U.S. nuclear plants could be moved to interim storage sites once the safety of its transport has been established. Image credit: Pixabay.Spent nuclear fuel that is currently stored in casks at U.S. nuclear plants could be moved to interim storage sites once the safety of its transport has been established. Image credit: Pixabay.More used nuclear fuel, encased in high-performance steel casks, is expected to be moved to interim storage sites once the safety of transporting the casks—huge enclosures, measuring up to 25 feet in length, with the fuel rods held in place by a grid—has been established, says Kaspar Willam, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Houston.

He and other researchers will consider what happens to the spent fuel in the event of an accident—a train carrying the fuel casks derails, for example, or a cask falls from a truck—as well as during the routine jostling that occurs in the course of cross-country transport.

Each organization will take on a different component:

· Willam, an expert in infrastructure and structural integrity, will study structural issues, including the effect of unanticipated translateral movement.

· Nuclear engineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will perform risk analysis, including the risk of a temperature increase if the rods come into contact with one another.

· Other team members will explore new sensing techniques to detect changes in the internal composition of the rods and various uncertainty probabilities—i.e., what could happen and how likely it is to happen.

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