Major train heists aren’t as common now as they were in the Wild West, but railways still carry some highly sensitive cargo that demands heavy-duty, specialized protection. That’s why the U.S. Navy, better known for aircraft carriers, submarines and fighter jets, is adding a sleek new armored train caboose to its arsenal, designed to protect shipments of radioactive waste and house mission-relevant security personnel.
The slate-blue Rail Escort Vehicle, or REV, a collaboration between the Navy and the U.S. Department of Energy, departed its assembly site at Vigor Industrial in Portland, Oregon this month for a testing location at the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. in Pueblo, Colorado, where it will undergo a final slate of tests. When it enters service as soon as 2024, REV will get hooked up to DoE’s new Atlas railcar, built to hold hundreds of tons of spent nuclear fuel. For the Navy, the trains will carry spent fuel rods from shipyards and propulsion facilities on the East and West Coasts to the Naval Reactors Facility in Idaho Falls, Idaho, for inspection and temporary storage before final disposal in dry casks underground.
Many details about the new caboose are classified, but DoE says it will provide “enhanced security, communication and surveillance capabilities,” compared with the smaller yellow escort cabooses currently used for the mission.
A spokesman for the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program (NNPP), Lee Smith, said the final two-year phase of testing will involve multiple train cars and demonstrate compliance with the Association of American Railroads’ S-2043 regulation governing the transport of radioactive material.
“As part of multiple-car testing, these railcars will be coupled together in a prototypic train setup and tested together. The majority of multiple-car testing will occur on closed test track loops at the Transportation Technology Center near Pueblo, CO but will also include testing on commercial rail track, culminating in a DOE demonstration run,” Smith said in an email.
“The specific sequence and timing of multiple-car testing is currently being finalized.”
Related: Before tanks, Battle Trains were the world’s heavy armor
Tests that have already been completed, he said, include demonstrations for each railcar design, including a “cask” car to carry the nuclear waste and a “buffer” car to accompany it.
Once the REV hits the rails after testing, it will hold a complement of specially trained security personnel, providing them “a comfortable living and working environment,” according to a fact sheet, for rail trips that can span thousands of miles – from the Portsmouth, Maine, Naval Shipyard to Idaho, for example. The solid REV, windowless except for small apertures The Drive describes as firing ports, stretches nearly 69 feet long and weighs 185,000 pounds fully loaded. While the total cost of the caboose isn’t clear, DoE contributed $10 million to its development. Ultimately, the Navy plans to procure five of the railcars, Smith confirmed. The Department of Energy will buy its own similarly designed escort vehicle for commercial shipments.
Smith confirmed that Navy waste shipments would be accompanied by “Navy personnel that are specially trained, armed, and have access to extensive and redundant communications capabilities.” He did not specify, however, what job rating these sailors would come from, or what weapons they and the REV would carry. He did note that security regulations limited what he could say about some aspects of the caboose’s operation.
“The REV is the last piece of the puzzle in completing a railcar system to safely transport the nation’s spent nuclear fuel,” Patrick Schwab, Atlas project manager for DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, said in a January release.
“This project is a prime example of the great collaboration between DOE and the Navy and will further serve the nation’s naval nuclear propulsion program, as well as our civilian reactors which currently supply more than half of our nation’s clean energy.”
Related: How do America’s nuclear submarines get resupplied at sea?
The Navy has more than 100 nuclear reactors, most of which power its fleet of carriers and submarines. Nuclear reactor cores are a long-lasting, zero-emission fuel source, and the Navy prides itself on its perfect record of safety to date in its employment of nuclear propulsion. But when nuclear fuel is spent, the disposal process is both delicate and laborious. The fuel in a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier lasts about 25 years, about half the carrier’s service life. The nuclear core in an attack submarine can last between 20 and 30 years.
“The first nuclear-powered submarine, USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571), was refueled after her first two years of operation having steamed about 62,000 miles,” a NNPP brief from 2017 stated.
“Today’s nuclear-powered attack submarine will not require refueling during its 33-year life and will steam over one million miles.”
Rail transport has been the Navy’s go-to option for spent nuclear fuel for over six decades, according to NNPP. The safety requirements for shipping radioactive waste cross-country are so demanding, and the waste containers themselves so massive, that trains are the practical option. The Navy’s M-290 Spent Fuel Shipping Container, which looks like a gigantic horizontal Shake Weight, encases its load with 10 to 11 inches of solid stainless steel. Another model, the dome-like M-140, features 14 inches of stainless steel and weighs up to 350,000 pounds when loaded.
These containers have to withstand a brutal beating, according to federal regulations.
According to NNPP briefing slides, the containers must be able to withstand any combination of the following events:
- 30-foot drop onto an unyielding surface;
- 40-inch drop onto a 6-inch diameter vertical metal rod;
- Fully-engulfing 1475 degree Fahrenheit fire for at least 30 minutes;
- Immersion in 50 feet of water.
Radioactive material is a massive public health hazard, as anyone who watched the HBO miniseries Chernobyl knows. The Navy spends substantial time and resources on shipment accident exercises, conducting mishap drills in 11 locations across the U.S. between 1996 and 2017, according to briefing slides. These exercises simulate various disasters that could threaten the shipment or train, and involve extensive communication with local authorities and civilian emergency personnel.
In one 2015 exercise, Navy officials simulated a spent nuclear fuel transport train getting hit by a dump truck in Granger, Wyoming, causing the train to derail and injure the driver. The exercise involved regional radiological surveys that confirmed radiation levels were normal, and the train ultimately was cleared to continue on to its destination.
The existence of an escort caboose packed with armed security personnel indicates preparation for a decidedly more nefarious scenario, however. Security experts have speculated about the possibility that terrorists could steal spent fuel rods for use in a radioactive “dirty bomb” or similar weapon. This was a topic of particular concern following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Related: NB-36 Crusader: America’s massive nuclear-powered bomber
Is it a realistic concern? Perhaps not. In March 2002, The Brookings Institution’s Gwyneth Cravens considered the risks:
“Could terrorists steal spent nuclear fuel? First they would have to get past multiple impediments: guards, high double fences with concertina wire, floodlights, motion detectors, and cameras. Fuel rods are so radioactive that anyone coming within a few feet of them would become extremely ill and die within hours if not minutes. The more radioactive something is, the harder it is for someone to steal—and survive. Special equipment and thick lead shields are required for handling, and spent fuel for transport must be placed in casks weighing about 90 tons that have been stringently tested (burned with jet fuel, dropped from great heights onto steel spikes, and otherwise assaulted) and have remained impervious.”
Nonetheless, federal regulations require these aggressive and redundant security measures, an acknowledgment that any unchecked mishap or unanticipated scenario would be a true disaster.
So, how much spent nuclear fuel is the Navy shipping around the country, anyway? Not as much as you might think. As of 2017, 850 containers of nuclear waste had been sent via rail from shipyards to the Idaho holding facility since shipping began in March 1957.
“The Navy ships on average about 10 containers per year of spent naval nuclear fuel, depending on the ship inactivation and refueling schedule,” Smith said. “Containers are typically shipped together and each train could include between 1 and 6 containers.”
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Feature image created by combining U.S. Navy and Dept. of Energy photos
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Ray Smith says
Well as horrible as it was to nuke Japan the fact is that Japan and Germany were very close to creating a nuclear weapon. If Hitlers scientists hadn’t defected to America he would have used a nuclear bomb on America. The Nazis were actually quite a bit ahead of us in the development of the atomic bomb. We just got lucky. The Nazis or the Japanese would not have hesitated to use the atomic bomb on us. There is no such thing as a fair or good war.
Stewart Ritchey says
Why not shoot radioactive material into the sun on the next available space craft?
kenneth j Hubbard says
Simply the cost.The sheer weight to fuel. Nuclear fuel is very heavy very dense.
Matt Lowe says
The space shuttles Challenger and Columbia are two good reasons why we don’t fly spent fuel rods into the Sun.
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I think we should dump all radioactive material waste on North Korea or maybe just recycle it into something more useful.
daniel murray says
If they leave it in los angeles, it will be broken into, and the plutonium will be sold on ebay and if caught, newsom’s prosecutors will slap em with a misdemeanor
Don Junior says
What a complete moron, you probably rooted for the January 6 insurrectionist domestic terrorists!
Buster Hyman says
Wanna see a real, fully propagandized moron? Just look in the mirror…
You’re an epic idiot! Apparently you believe everything that the MSM pukes at you. January 6th was not a “insurrectionist domestic terrorist” event.
It was a Trump pep rally that was infiltrated by anti-Trump personnel…. trying anything they could to stop him and derail his presidency.
And according to a military back channel, it was a multi-faceted operation within the pep rally, designed to accomplish many goals… such as seizing Pelosi’s laptop as well as laptops of other anti-Trump libtards.
Gary Crane says
I recall the “white train” operating from Trident sub base, Bangor Wa, back in late 70’s. It was a armored train that allegedly carried nuclear material for the Trident rockets. As part of law enforcement we dealt with numerous anti nuke protests attempting to disrupt that operation.
Frank Kushner says
Should put latest small rocket anti missles on just as they did on the 747 that carried the space shuttle back to Cape Canaveral
David Cartier says
This reminds me of how, during the 1930s Poland largely based their national defense on a series of very costly armored trains. They worked superbly, until the Germans bombed the tracks they ran on.
Rudy J. H. says
Putting spent nuclear fuel rods in long-term or “permanent” storage is a waste. Invest in repossessing and make use of that potential energy in 3rd and soon (hopefully) 4th generation nuclear reactors.
And to site “HBO miniseries Chernobyl” as factual?? Please get a better source.
joshua Schneider says
I’m close friends with a Ukrainian who lived about 3 hours from pripyat when chernobyl happened and he says it is in fact extremely so.
Well at least they didn’t provide a unique profile of pictures to aid in identifying the unit from a terrorist attack.
This article talks about the train traveling from the east coast- “for rail trips that can span thousands of miles – from the Portsmouth, Maine, Naval Shipyard to Idaho”, There is no such place called “Portsmouth Maine”. The navy yard is the “Portsmouth Naval Shipyard” and it’s located in Kittery Maine.
Charles William McMillin says
I was born at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Kittery ME. In 1959. My parents were stationed at Pease A.F.B. with the 100th BW.
R. Lane says
I was stationed there in 72 thru 75. On the USS Detector MSO 429.
William Kelly says
Sad to think a chunk of the Navy ship-building budget is used for this, instead of the Department of Transportation. The Navy responsibility should shift to the DOT at the moment the fuel cask leaves the confines of the port.
David Oram says
DOT? How about the DOD. And I don’t care which branch. SNM is not like something ya can ship using FedEx or UPS. Going to put TSA in charge of security?
Gregory Phillip Dearth says
The DOT doesn’t have the money for such things. It got a meager 1% federal budget increase thanks to stripping down the infrastructure bill. Meanwhile we spend the most tax payer dollars compared to all other countries on the planet for the military (and wonder why most of the planet looks at the USA as a threat). This world perspective isn’t helped by our dismal representation in embassies worldwide. But I digress…
It makes sense to use DOD funds to address this issue considering nuclear waste is a potent weapons material.
If we are immoral enough to be the only country to nuke another’s civilian population and still keep pumping out more nuclear weapons, we should at least be extremely meticulous and responsible with the waste product of the peaceful exploitation of this technology, one we don’t hardly use (11% vs 66% fossil fuels).
The USA needs to take a deep breath and rethink the global future. Do we want one where we can cause our own extinction in multiple ways? Or can we perhaps use nuclear technology to bypass our filthy habits and maybe even save our future?
Part of that latter option is the sane use of military budgets to deal with dangerous materials instead of relying on the miniscule budgets of our civilian assets like the DOT.
I believe it’s the DOE that maintains the nukes and is responsible for waste disposal.
“We don’t hardly use” ?!? Sure, I want advice from an uneducated child.
This said a lot without saying anything
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