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Plutonium Air Shipments

World Map of Plutonium Air Shipment Routes
(check out countries that are overflown or are close to the flightpaths)


In 1987, the Nuclear Control Institute disclosed that air shipments of extremely toxic plutonium were about to begin from Europe to Japan via Alaska even though industry had failed to develop a shipping cask capable of withstanding a high-velocity crash. The result of our groundbreaking report: Congress enacted a law barring such shipments, Japan was forced to switch to sea transports of plutonium from Europe, German state licensing authorities blocked air shipments of plutonium fuel to Britain, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began a process to establish stricter international standards for shipping plutonium by air.

Now, after more than a decade of deliberations, the IAEA is about to approve a packaging standard that for the first time requires greater crash resistance for air shipments than for land and sea shipments of radioactive materials. But the impending IAEA standard, developed in close coordination with industry, is still considerably weaker than U.S. legal requirements for shipping plutonium by air and international requirements for protecting flight recorders in commercial airliners. No plutonium air-shipment cask has ever survived tests against these strict requirements.

To make matters worse, the new IAEA air-packaging standard has a loophole exempting plutonium when it is shipped in the form that most plutonium is to be shipped---as a mixture of plutonium and uranium (so-called mixed-oxide or MOX) fuel. Industry's assertion that MOX fuel won't release deadly plutonium in a crash and fire, and therefore can be flown in the weaker existing casks, is deeply flawed and untested.

Air transports of plutonium are preferred by industry over sea transports because the former are deemed to be quicker, cheaper, easier to protect from hijackers and to shield from public controversy. However, a speck of plutonium lodged in the lung or bone can cause cancer. Consequently, dispersal of a plutonium cargo in a severe crash could result in a health and environmental catastrophe. Both the new air-shipment packaging code and the exemption from it put the public at risk.

We are demanding that the IAEA defer action until it develops a code that conforms with strict U.S. requirements and international aviation standards. If the IAEA proceeds with the new code anyway, we are urging nations along or adjacent to flight paths of plutonium shipments to exercise their legal rights to bar these planes from flying over or near their territories.

Inadequacy of the IAEA's Air Transport Regulations: The Case of MOX Fuel
Technical Paper presented to Dangerous Goods Panel, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), by Dr. Edwin S. Lyman, NCI scientific director, Montreal, Canada, October 24, 1997

The Facts About Air Transport of Mixed-Oxide Fuel: NCI Rebuts BNFL Newsletter of June 12, 1997
NCI Press Release, June 20, 1997

NCI to EC Officials: Ban Air Shipments of Radioactive Material from the European Union
Letter to Christos Papoutsis, Commissioner for Energy, European Commission, November 5, 1996. Similar letters were sent to John Bruton, Prime Minister of Ireland and President of the European Union Councils of Ministers; and to Neil Kinnock, European Commissioner for Transport.

Lessons of TWA and ValuJet Crashes Are Ignored:
International Air Shipments of Deadly Plutonium to be Approved in Casks that Cannot Withstand a Crash

NCI Exchanges of Correspondence with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), International Air Transport Association (IATA), and International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations (IFALPA):

German Effort to Weaken Crash Standards For Flying Plutonium Should Be Rejected

NCI Denounces as a Fraud a New IAEA Safety Standard for Air Shipments of Plutonium
NCI press release, March 1, 1996

IAEA to Approve German Plan for Plutonium Flights Over Objections Raised by U.S. Government and International Aviation Experts
NCI press release, September 25, 1995

"Behavior of Mixed-Oxide Fuel Under Transport Accident Conditions"
Edwin S. Lyman, PhD, Scientific Director, Nuclear Control Institute, September 21, 1995

"Questions/Comments Concerning the Air Transport of "Very Low Dispersibility" (VLD) Material"
Edwin S. Lyman, PhD, Princeton University, May 8, 1995

British Government Urged to Ban Plutonium Flights for Lack of Crash-Proof Shipping Casks
NCI Press Release, August 31, 1994

Germany Ready to Fly Plutonium to Britain in Casks Not Certified as Crashproof
NCI Press Release, April 7, 1993

Air Transport of Plutonium Obtained by the Japanese from Nuclear Fuel Controlled by the United States
Paul Leventhal, Milton Hoenig, and Alan Kuperman, NCI Special Report, March 3, 1987

Visit our other special section:

Plutanic Ship
Radioactive Sea Shipments
Japan, Britain & France are beginning to ship plutonium
wastes by sea in containers that can't survive a sinking.
What can be done to stop them?