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."
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."
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.
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."