SRNL Puts ORNL’s Radiological Storage Container Through Safety Testing

By Jason Dehart
November 30, 2023

The ability to safely store and transport nuclear materials without fear of an accident is vital to maintaining operations at the nation’s 17 national laboratories and certain private sector industries.  The Packaging Technology Group at Savannah River National Lab (SRNL) designs and manages packages usage for safe transport and storage of radioactive materials.  SRNL has never conducted safety testing of a container designed and constructed by another national laboratory, but that changed this year when SRNL put Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) Hi-Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR)-fuel package through its paces, including a 30-foot drop onto a steel pad.  ORNL uses HFIR-fuel containers to carry nuclear materials to and from its reactor. 

SRNL Packaging Technology Engineer William Johnson led the SRNL testing team, comprised of eight mostly early-career engineers, as it tested the collaborating lab’s package.  The experienced Johnson said he and his team worked closely with their ORNL counterparts throughout the process. “We really started going on this project about six months ago … we’ve been exchanging emails with [ORNL] to figure out when the manufacturing [of the test containers] will be completed.”

ORNL constructed and self-certified its HFIR-fuel package in the 1960s and continues to use it today.  But ORNL needs to verify this stalwart package from the Cold War meets current Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulatory guidance.

The ORNL request is unique because national laboratories typically manage their own containers from creation through authorization for use and issuance of a Certification of Compliance (CoC), as the engineering teams have a detailed understanding of the laboratory-specific activity, type of materials, and goal for a specific package.  According to SRNL Packaging Technology Program Manager Kurt Eberl, ORNL asked for SRNL’s help to conduct the regulatory testing for the upcoming NRC CoC renewal.

Members of the packaging technology group at SRNL prepare the Hi-Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR)-fuel package for testing.

For a package to gain NRC approval, it must survive nine tests.  Tests include exposing the container to extreme temperatures, dropping it onto a steel slab from four and 30 feet, striking it with a puncture bar, and releasing an 1,100-pound metal plate from 30 feet above onto the package.  The HFIR package drop tests drew more than a dozen curious onlookers from SRNL, ORNL and the NRC.

The team completed all the required tests in September and are working on the documentation to send to the NRC.

Eberl described the nine-month SRNL-ORNL collaboration as both valuable and successful. He believes the collaboration promoted teamwork and provided the group of early-career SRNL engineers the chance to lead a series of drop tests.  He’s also hopeful the positive feedback from ORNL will lead to more collaborations with other national laboratories.