Monthly Archives: July 2017

How Do You Package Radioactive Materials for Shipment?

Yo, Dr. Z! I need to learn about how to package radioactive materials for shipment and I’ve got to admit I don’t know where to start. Can you help get me started?

Good luck, man – you’ve got your work cut out for you. I went over this a little bit a few posts ago, but there is certainly a lot of detail to fill in. So let’s get started!

The first thing you need to know is where to find the rules – that’s in the transportation regs. Specifically, you need to look at Subpart I of 49 CFR 173 (49 CFR 173.401 – 477). And right away you’re going to notice a lot of terms with definitions that are not really intuitive. But you have to be able to understand them if you’re going to be able to do this correctly.

So here goes….

First, there are two “forms” of radioactive materials:

Special form means that the radioactivity is in a sealed source or something similar. Specifically, it means that the radioactivity is sealed up inside a welded metal capsule of some sort. Unless they develop leaks, special form materials are unlikely to cause contamination. The A1 limit (more on this shortly) applies to special form radioactive materials.

Special Form

An example of a capsule used for Special Form

Normal form (also called “other than special form”) is everything else. These are unsealed radioactive materials – it could be contaminated soil from a remediation project, radiopharmaceuticals intended to be injected into patients to diagnose disease, or radio-labeled chemicals intended for use in research. The A2 limit applies to normal form radioactive materials.

Normal Form

Example of containers used for Normal Form

OK – so now we get to types of packages. The most common types are Type A and Type B – these will cover all of your packaging needs unless you’re shipping something fairly esoteric (fissile materials, for example, or radioactive materials that are pyrophoric). Virtually all radioactive materials travel inside of Type A packages – these can be as simple as a sturdy cardboard box, metal ammo cans that you get at an Army-Navy surplus store, or something similar (more on this in a moment). Type A packages are used to transport A1 or A2 quantities of radioactivity, so let’s take a brief detour to figure out what in the world this means. And I know this is starting to get confusing – but bear with me for a minute and hopefully it will be a little more clear.

Type A packaging

An example of a container used to meet Type A packaging requirements

There’s a table in 49 CFR 173.435 that gives A1 and A2 quantities for a bunch of radionuclides. If the amount of radioactivity you’re trying to ship is less than the A1 activity (for special form radioactive material) or less than the A2 activity (for normal form) then you can ship the radioactive material in a Type A container. If you’ve got more than that then you have to use a Type B container.

OK – so how does this work in practice? Well…say you’re trying to ship a Cs-137 source with an activity of 20 Ci. What sort of package do you need to ship it in?

So – start off by going to the table I just mentioned. If you scroll down to Cs-137, it lists the A1 limit of 54 Ci. Since your source is 20 Ci, and 20 Ci is less than 54 Ci, it means that you can ship your radioactive source in a Type A package – easy peasy! And if your Cs-137 is not in a sealed source? Well, go a couple of columns to the right to see the A2 (normal form) column and you see that the A2 value for Cs-137 is only 16 Ci. So your 20 Ci of normal form Cs-137 has to be shipped in a Type B container, which is another kettle of fish entirely.

This helps you to figure out how your radioactivity has to be packaged, but we still need to figure out exactly what is meant by a Type A or Type B package. For this, you have to go to another part of the regs – 49 CFR 173.410 is where they start (for typical industrial packages) with additional information given in 49 CFR 173.411-412 and 415. In addition, if you’re going to certify a package yourself, 49 CFR 173.465-466 goes into all of the tests that you have to perform (and that the package has to pass – and that have to be documented) to show the package will be acceptable. For example, you have to show that the package can maintain its integrity when it’s sprayed with water, when it’s dropped onto a hard surface, when it’s dropped onto a corner of the package, when it’s stacked 5 high in a warehouse, and so forth.

So a reasonable question is “Where do I get these packages?”

One answer is that you can do it yourself. To do this, take whatever box you want to ship your radioactive materials in, outfit it the way you plan to use it, and test it. So, for example, if you’re going to have a Styrofoam insert, put that inside the box. If you plan to have your source inside a 25-pound lead shield, put the lead shield inside the box and the Styrofoam insert. If you’re going to seal the box up with strapping tape, buy some of the tape and tape up the box. And then you put it through all of the tests and document that it’s passed them all. Alternately, you can buy a Type A package (make sure it comes with a certificate that confirms it’s been tested). There are also reusable Type A containers – a metal box, for example, that can be locked with a padlock and that’s been tested to make sure it meets the Type A package criteria.

Package Types

Package Types

One last thing, and then I’ll try to put all of this together. If your source comes in higher than the A1 or A2 limits then you have to ship them in a Type B container. If what you have is an industrial radiography source then the camera itself is going to be an acceptable Type B container. But for the most part, Type B containers are fairly large contraptions that can weigh several thousand pounds and take up a fair amount of space – they’re usually transported by highly qualified companies that specialize in shipping high levels of radioactivity. And if you’re shipping some of the more esoteric types of radioactive materials (fissile materials, for example) then you’ve got to meet other criteria. But the people who are shipping things like this are also going to have to go through a LOT of training and they’ll know the requirements very well.

Type B Containers

Type B Containers being hauled on a semi truck

OK – so let’s try to summarize all of this.

  1. You’re trying to figure out how to ship, say, a 10-Ci sealed source (remember, a sealed source is considered to be special form) of Co-60
  2. You go to 49 CFR 173.435 and you see that the A1 limit (for special form) for Co-60 is 10 Ci. Whew – your source is less than this, so you can use a Type A package!
  3. You dig through your supplies and find that you have a reusable Type A package at your facility.
  4. You round up the Type A certificate to ensure that you (or someone else) tested the package properly.
  5. You stick your source in the package and ship it off to its destination.
    1. And if it’s a reusable package – don’t forget to insist that it be returned!

How Do You Label Radioactive Materials for Shipping?

Dear Dr. Zoomie: We’re a well-logging company and we ship and transport radioactive materials sometimes and I just found out we’re supposed be labeling our packages. I’m not quite sure how to figure out the right label to use. Can you help me? Thanks!

Yeah – this is a common question and a place where people make a lot of mistakes. First, the chances that your vehicle will be stopped and that you’ll get in trouble for making a mistake – pretty slim odds. On the other hand, you have to follow the rules whether you think you’re going to get caught or not – it’s the right thing to do. Not only that, but if you’re doing things the right way it doesn’t matter if you do get stopped because you’ll be doing things correctly. So here goes!

The first concept you have to learn is the Transport Index (abbreviated TI). The Transport Index is just the radiation dose rate that you measure at a distance of 1 meter from your package, in mR/hr. So if you get a reading of, say, 1.3 mR/hr a meter away from the package then the TI is 1.3; if you put some additional shielding around the same source and reduce the dose rate to 0.5 then the TI (for the exact same source) is reduced to 0.5. So the TI has nothing to do with the amount of radioactivity in the package – it only reflects the radiation dose rate you measure a meter from the package surface.

A few things to remember – alpha radiation can’t even penetrate through a sheet of paper, so if your package contains only alpha radioactivity then your TI will be zero no matter how much radioactivity is present (beta sources are similar – you might get readings from a high-energy beta emitter such as strontium-90, but might have no readings at all from a carbon-14 source). In addition, you have to remember that a neutron-emitting source (such as many well-logging sources) will be emitting radiation that might not be detected by all radiation instruments – you need to use a neutron detector to measure neutron radiation. Oh – and don’t use a Geiger counter to measure radiation dose rates unless it’s an energy-compensated GM; any other sort of GM detector is likely to give erroneous readings.

OK – so once you’ve got the TI figured out then you can get a start on figuring out how to label your package.

There are three labels you have to choose from, White 1, Yellow 2, and Yellow 3.

White 1 Radiation Label

White 1 Radiation Label

White 1 Radiation Label

The lowest level of label is a White 1. If the radiation level at the surface of the package (what you would measure by putting your radiation detector on contact with the package surface) is less than 0.5 mR/hr then it can be labeled with the White 1 label. White 1 packages don’t have a Transport Index – by the time you get to a distance of a meter there won’t be anything that you can measure.

Yellow 2 Radiation Label

Yellow 2 Radiation Label

Yellow 2 Radiation Label


Next is Yellow 2.  You will use a Yellow 2 label for packages with surface radiation dose rates of up to 50 mR/hr and that are less than 1 mR/hr (TI < 1) at a distance of 1 meter.

Yellow 3 Radiation Label

Yellow 3 Radiation Label

Yellow 3 Radiation Label

The highest level of label is the Yellow 3. These are used to label any packages with surface radiation dose rates in excess of 50 mR/hr OR for any packages with a TI greater than 1 (that is, where dose rate is higher than 1 mR/hr at a distance of 1 meter from the package).

One thing to keep in mind is that if your sources are expected to be transported a lot (soil density gauges, industrial radiography sources, and well logging sources are frequently transported from job site to job site), the carrying cases or packaging will very likely to be properly labeled by the manufacturer already. In that case, all you need to do is to check the radiation dose rates to make sure they’re what you expect to see (if the shielding is compromised somehow dose rates might be too high; if the source falls out of the shield then the dose rates will be too low).

Now that you’ve (hopefully) figured out how to label your packages, you need to know whether or not you can carry a particular package inside your vehicle – or someone else’s. Here, what matters is whether or not the vehicle is a common carrier (e.g. Federal Express) or an exclusive use vehicle (this can be your company truck or a contract carrier); it also matters whether or not the vehicle is open (a flat-bed truck or in the bed of a pickup truck that’s not covered).

If you’re shipping a radioactive package with a common carrier then the radiation dose rate has to be less than 200 mR/hr on contact with the exterior of the package and it has to have a TI of less than 10 (remember – this means that the dose rate measured 1 meter from the package can’t exceed 10 mR/hr).

If you’re transporting the radioactive materials in your own vehicle or with a contract carrier then you have a little more latitude. Here, if the vehicle is closed, you can have surface radiation dose rates up to 1 R/hr (1000 mR/hr) and up to 200 mR/hr on contact with the vehicle’s surface. For an open vehicle you’re limited to 200 mR/hr on contact with the package surface as well as at the edge of the vehicle’s bed. In both cases, you can’t exceed a dose rate of 10 mR/hr two meters from the side of the vehicle and no more than 2 mR/hr in the cab.

The last thing to mention is that some vehicles will have to be placarded – specifically, any vehicle carrying a Yellow 3 package as well as trucks carrying a category of radioactive materials called “low specific activity” (or LSA) material – this primarily comes from remediation of contaminated sites.

Radiation Placard Position on Trucks

Radiation Placard Position on Truck and Trailer

Remember – there’s a lot more to radioactive materials transportation than labeling the packages and placarding the trucks properly.  I’ll have some more postings on the topic, and you can also find information in a booklet published online by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

If you’re interested in attending a training course Nevada Technical Associates conducts courses on the topic of Transportation of Radioactive Materials and holds courses several times a year.

How Do You Transport Radioactive Materials?

Hi, Dr. Zoomie – got a question for you. We have some small radioactive sources in some soil gauges that we have to drive from job site to job site. I just took over as RSO and my boss told me to make sure we’re doing the transportation right. Can you tell me what I should be looking out for?

Wow – it might not seem like it, but there’s a LOT that goes into this; too much for a single posting. So let me give a sort of overview here and then I’ll get into some of the details later (there have been a lot of transportation questions lately, so it seems like a good topic to cover in some detail). For starters, the regulations you’ll need to follow are scattered through the Code of Federal Regulations – specifically, Title 49, Parts 171-173 (of 49 CFR 171-173).

So – first of all – if you are transporting or shipping radioactive materials (including your soil density gauges) then you or somebody else at your company is required to attend training in radioactive materials transportation every 3 years. If you don’t have any records showing anybody attending this training then this is something you need to take care of as soon as you can. Incidentally, there are a lot of hazmat transportation courses and most of them include a little bit of information on radioactive materials. But if you are driving these sources around every day then I would strongly advise taking a class that focuses on radioactive materials transportation and shipping since those classes tend to be taught by people who really know the details of radioactive shipments (and believe me, there are LOTS of details).

Second, I also need to differentiate between transportation and shipping. If you are driving the radioactive materials around yourself then you’re transporting radioactive materials. If you’re packaging them and handing them off to somebody else then you’re shipping. But either way you need to have the training every three years. On – you only have to worry about this if your radioactive materials are going to be moving by vehicle over public roads. At a university I used to work for we would transfer radioactive materials by walking them over to the appropriate building – so no need for special packaging or anything. And if you’re moving the materials over, say, an industrial campus that the public can’t access then you also don’t need to worry since these are not public roads.

packaging for transporting radioactive materials

Packaging for transporting radioactive materials

Whether you’re transporting or shipping you need to make sure that the materials are properly packaged. There are three main categories of radioactive materials – Type A, B, and C. Type A quantities of radioactive materials are to be packaged in Type A packages; Type B quantities must be transported in Type B packages, and Type C quantities are transported in (wait for it…) Type C packages – it makes an odd sort of sense. Type A packages don’t need to be very elaborate – some Type A quantities are shipped in strong cardboard boxes sealed with tough packing tape. By comparison, Type B packages are virtually indestructible – there are some videos online that show not only the size of these things, but some of the testing done to confirm that they’ll keep truly dangerous amounts of radioactivity safe, even under dire circumstances. Shown here are a stock photo of a Type A container and a photo I took of a Type B container that was used to transport a high-activity radioactive source – although the Type B container isn’t fully assembled (the two pieces shown are bolted together, one atop the other) you can get an idea of the size and ruggedness of these things.

Workers are loading an irradiated source into a Type B container for shipping.

Workers are loading an irradiated source into a Type B container for shipping.

One big thing to remember – with any package – is that it has to be certified as a Type A, B, or C package! And unless it’s certified then you can’t use it. Now, in your case, your gauge and shipping case (if it came with one) have already been certified as a Type A container so you don’t need to worry about this. But anyone reading this who is shipping or transporting, say, radioactive samples, radiopharmaceuticals, and that sort of thing…well, you might be tempted to just re-use the Type A package you received your last shipment in. And you would be wrong to do so since you haven’t certified the package the way that you normally use it, pack it, and seal it.

You also have to make sure the package is properly labeled – the categories here are White I, Yellow II, and Yellow III depending on the radiation dose rates you measure a meter away from the package (the transport index) and on the package surface. There’s some good information about all of this in a number of places online – one the most easily understandable is on a site maintained by the National Institutes of Health.

There’s a lot more than this on the topic of transportation and shipping, but this is a good place to stop for this overview. As I said, I’ve had a number of other questions so stand by for more details on labeling, packaging, transportation index, and so forth. But this should get you started. If you’re interested in attending a training course Nevada Technical Associates conducts courses on the topic of Transportation of Radioactive Materials and holds courses several times a year.