The transport of uranium ore concentrate (yellow cake) through New Zealand ports has been taking place for well over thirty years. The shipments are fully compliant with the international transport regulations, have a low level of radioactivity and pose a negligible radiological risk to the public and port staff.
The product originates from Australia where uranium is mined at a number of sites such as Olympic Dam, Ranger Mine and Beverley Mine. Most of the shipments that pass through New Zealand’s ports are destined for the United States where the product goes though multiple processes in order to manufacture fuel used in civil nuclear reactors.
Uranium ore concentrate (UOC)
Uranium is a naturally occurring, weakly radioactive element which is widely distributed through the earth’s crust, in rocks, soils, stream sediments, rivers and oceans. Traces of uranium also occur in foods and the human body. Uranium contributes to natural background radiation.
Uranium decays over a long period, producing a series of variable radioactive decay or daughter products. During processing of uranium ore, the daughter products are separated out and a weakly radioactive uranium ore concentrate (UOC or U3O8) is produced. The uranium is exported from Australia in the form of UOC which is both chemically and physically stable.
Packaging for transport
UOC is packaged in sealed 205-litre steel drums meeting IP-1 industrial package requirements as specified in the IAEA Regulations for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material (PDF, 1.5 MB) available from the IAEA website.
The drums are securely stowed within 20-foot ISO sea freight containers. This is the preferred packing method and complies with the requirements of the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code and relevant UN guidelines for packing of cargo transport units. The packed containers are monitored, placarded, inspected and sealed. The containers remain sealed throughout the journey from mine site to the final overseas point of delivery. The United Nations Number and Proper Shipping Name for these shipments are UN 2912, Radioactive Material, Low Specific Activity (LSA-1).
In the unlikely event of a spillage of UOC during transport, the usual incident response procedures for dangerous goods would be followed. The material is only hazardous if ingested or inhaled in significant quantities (more from its chemical toxicity than radiological nature), so basic personal protective equipment such as disposable overalls, gloves and respirator are all that is required for responders cleaning up a spillage. Full details of the national radiation incident response plan can be downloaded from the link Radiation Incident Responders’ Handbook (PDF, 372 KB).
Other shipments transported via New Zealand
In addition to UOC there are other ores and products containing naturally occurring radioactive materials originating from Australia that are transported via New Zealand to their final destination. Examples include tantalite and monazite, both of which contain uranium and thorium and are used as a source of rare earth materials. From a radiological perspective these products are similar to UOC in terms of the transport and packaging requirements.