The Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), an independent administrative authority set up by law 2006-686 of 13 June 2006 concerning nuclear transparency and safety (known as the “TSN law”) is tasked, on behalf of the State, with regulating nuclear safety and radiation protection in order to protect workers, patients, the public and the environment from the risks involved in nuclear activities. It also contributes to informing the citizens.
Each year, approximately 900,000 packages of radioactive materials are transported in France, representing a small percentage of shipments of hazardous materials. The largest share (two-thirds) consists of radioisotopes for medical, pharmaceutical or industrial use: this is the case for radioactive sources used for technical inspection in construction (inspection for lead paint) and industry (use of gamma radiography for weld inspection, onsite density inspection, etc.).
The packages vary widely. Their radioactivity, which can differ by more than twelve orders of magnitude, or from several thousand becquerels (pharmaceutical packages) to trillions of becquerels (irradiated fuel), and their weight from several kilograms to a hundred tonnes.
Varied sectors and origins
The sectors in which packages are used are also very diverse. It involves the nuclear sector, as well as medicine, traditional industry and research. The latter together account for 85% of packages of radioactive materials. The nuclear power cycle industry requires transportation of various radioactive materials. Annually, the largest share involves nearly 300 shipments of new fuel, 250 for irradiated fuel, thirty for MOX fuels and sixty for plutonium oxide powder.
The transportation may also be international, as some of this material may transit through France: packages of irradiated fuel from Switzerland destined for Sellafield in Great Britain may be loaded at the port of Dunkirk.
Another source of international shipments are plants in France for uranium enrichment, nuclear fuel fabrication and reprocessing and manufacturers of radioisotopes for medical use which have commercial ties to foreign organisations.
Shipment of radioactive materials must be transported under safety conditions with a satisfactory level of protection for workers and the public from the effects of radioactivity. Monitoring poses special difficulty to the extent that the process concerns a large number of shipments, packages are shipped in varying sizes (from several cubic meters for power plant fuel and several cubic centimetres for material for medical use) and the diversified nature of the radioactive material that is shipped (some are very radioactive and others only slightly). A failure to follow instructions of a certificate of approval for a package or to observe conditions for package use could result in exposure of workers and the public to doses that exceed regulatory limits.
To the extent that the public can be directly affected by events concerning the shipment of radioactive material, ASN's requirements must be particularly strict.
ASN has been responsible for inspecting civilian shipments of radioactive material since June 1997. In this regard, it:
- participates in preparing international regulations;
- examines and delivers shipment authorisations and certifications;
- monitors in normal and emergency situations using inspections and regularly organising emergency exercises;
- makes available and organises information to the public.