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Nuclear transport accidents and incidents

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Burning truck, burning ship carrying uranium hexafluoride

Recent reports have detailed an August 22 event in Ohio, USA, involving a burning truck carrying uranium hexafluoride. Nuclear regulators in Canada – where the cargo originated – and in the US were not informed of the incident. Indeed there was no requirement for them to be notified.[1]

The fire was caused by brake overheating. Driver Brian Hanson doused the fire with water and thought he had extinguished it, and climbed back into the cab to call for a service truck. Then he realised the fire wasn't out and disconnected the trailer.

Hanson said: "I wound the legs down and disconnected it from the truck, losing the hair on my arms because it was really burning at that time – which I figure was kind of crazy in hindsight. But we're so programmed and told about the danger of a load, and the media danger. We're basically taught that the media's like terrorism. We're supposed to do everything we can to avoid media. I wanted to get the fire away from the uranium hexafluoride because it's heat activated ... It's really nasty stuff, and they would have had to evacuate a huge neighbourhood we were beside."

Hanson added: "So I got the truck disconnected, it was burning like crazy, fire blazing out the back, trying to get to a safe place to get off the highway and away from the load. I made it two miles before the truck was disabled, but I got off on the exit ramp and by that time the police were just seconds behind me, and the fire trucks were on the way."

A new rig was dispatched to pick up the uranium load.

The shipment came from a Cameco refinery in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada. Cameco said: "Uranium hexafluoride is transported in special containers that are designed and tested to withstand a significant impact and at least 30 minutes engulfed in flames at a temperature of 800 degrees Celsius." The material is transported in a cylinder about 1.2 metres in diameter and 6 metres long, containing 12,000 kilograms.

According to Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) – a U.S. Department of Energy research lab – if uranium hexafluoride interacts with water or water vapour, it is "chemically toxic," forming dangerous hydrogen fluoride gas. "Uranium is a heavy metal that, in addition to being radioactive, can have toxic chemical effects (primarily on the kidneys) if it enters the bloodstream by means of ingestion or inhalation," ANL says, and hydrogen fluoride "is an extremely corrosive gas that can damage the lungs and cause death if inhaled at high enough concentrations."

Atlantic Cartier ship fire

In May, fire damaged the Atlantic Cartier ship carrying nine tons of uranium hexafluoride while it was in the Port of Hamburg. The uranium was destined for the Areva-owned uranium enrichment plant at Lingen, Lower Saxony.[2] Authorities said containers with dangerous substances were promptly removed from the ship.[3]

From 2008−2013, inspections recorded 20 deficiencies involving the Atlantic Cartier relating to: international safety management; documentation of compliance with dangerous goods legislation; safety of access to working areas; Marpol (UN marine pollution convention) Annex 1 fire prevention issues; speed and distance indicators; safety of navigation (voyage plan); loadlines; propulsion auxiliary engine concerns; accident prevention (onboard personnel); ships certification and documentation; operational procedures (engines and equipment); and distress signalling.[4]

Canada − Trucks with radioactive cargo fail inspections

Since 2010, more than one truck in seven carrying radioactive material has been pulled off the road by Ontario ministry of transportation inspectors for failing safety or other requirements.[5] The information is contained in a notice [6] filed with a panel studying a proposal to establish a radioactive waste repository near Kincardine.

The notice states that since 2010, inspectors examined 102 trucks carrying "Class 7 Dangerous Goods (Radioactive material.)" Of those, 16 were placed "out-of-service," which means the vehicle "must be repaired or the violation corrected before it is allowed to proceed." Violations included faulty brake lights; "load security" problems; flat tires; false log; damaged air lines; and a driver with no dangerous goods training.[6]

In other cases, trucks were allowed to proceed but were slapped with enforcement actions for problems with hours of service; annual inspection requirement; missing placards; exceed gross weight limit; speed limiter; overlength combination; overheight vehicle; and vehicle registration / insurance.[6]

In total, 25 of the 102 inspections − nearly one in four − resulted in the vehicle being place out-of-service and / or enforcement action taken against the operator of the vehicle.[6]

[1] John Spears, 31 Oct 2013, 'Burning truck hauling nuclear load flies under radar',
[2] Martyn Lowe, 25 Aug 2013, 'Next Destination − Antwerp',
[3] May 2013,
[4] UK Nuclear Free Local Authorities, 28 Aug 2013, 'NFLA alarmed about docking of Atlantic Cartier in Liverpool,
[5] John Spears, 15 Nov 2013, 'Trucks with radioactive cargo fail inspections',
[6] Ministry of Transportation − Undertaking #61: