July 29, 1996
Dr. Assad Kotaite
The President of the Council
International Civil Aviation Organization
International Aviation Square
1000 Sherbrooke Street West
Canada H3A 2R2
Dear Dr. Kotaite:
We are writing in response to your letter of June 28 concerning the International Atomic Energy Agency's amended guidelines for the transport of radioactive materials ("Safety Series 6"). The IAEA Board of Governors is expected to vote on a recommendation to adopt the new guidelines at its September meeting.
Your letter states "there are issues which ICAO and IAEA have identified as requiring further study." We believe these unresolved issues are central to the question of whether it is safe to transport radioactive materials by air under the amended guidelines. Until these safety issues are resolved, we urge ICAO and the other international aviation organizations publicly to oppose adoption of the amended guidelines and to communicate their opposition promptly to the IAEA Board of Governors.
As you noted in your letter, ICAO has a specific mandate to evaluate the IAEA guidelines "from an aviation viewpoint." Consequently, the burden of proof rests with the IAEA to demonstrate to ICAO's satisfaction the safety of the new guidelines.
The IAEA is placing the cart before the horse by seeking immediate adoption of Safety Series 6 before outstanding safety issues are resolved. Following the expected approval at the IAEA's Board of Governor's meeting in September, there is to be an IAEA meeting in October to review these outstanding technical safety issues. Especially in the wake of the recent ValueJet and TWA crashes, the proper order of business is surely to resolve the safety issues before adopting the guidelines.
ICAO's objections to the amended guidelines are well known. The record shows that ICAO has consistently urged that containers for air-transport of radioactive material be crash-resistant. ICAO has been critical of the impact speed specified by the IAEA's impact test as unrealistically low and not representative of actual aircraft accident conditions.
An analysis presented to an ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel working group in 1995 found that the IAEA specifications for a crash-resistant cask compared unfavorably with international standards for the "black box" flight and data recorders. The analysis found that the input energy per unit mass associated with the IAEA impact test (that is, the measure of the mechanical insult delivered to a test package) was only 43% of the input energy associated with the flight recorder specification, corresponding to an impact speed of 138 meters/second (309 mph).
The amended IAEA guidelines call for a Type C air-transport container that can withstand an impact of only 90 meters/second (201 mph) into an unyielding surface. The U.S. domestic standard is 129 meters/second (289 mph). For overflights of U.S. territory, an even more stringent impact speed of 282 meters/second (631 mph) is required. In October 1992, when an El Al cargo plane crashed into an apartment complex near Amsterdam, the impact speed was estimated to be 150 meters/second (335 mph).
It has been argued that the amended guidelines would represent an incremental improvement over current transport safety standards and therefore merit adoption. We reject the notion of "safer" air shipments of radioactive material in casks that cannot withstand a high-velocity crash. If radioactive material is to be flown, it must be flown safely, in casks certified as crashworthy---or it should not be flown at all. The public should not be expected to assume the involuntary risk of radioactive contamination as a consequence of uncrashworthy containers. The El Al, ValueJet and TWA tragedies are vivid reminders that the risk of a catastrophic crash is not zero and that they do occur from time to time.
Given these facts, how can ICAO acquiesce in the IAEA's determination to adopt this new regulation, even on an interim basis, since such acquiescence will serve to legitimate air transport of plutonium in casks that could not withstand a high velocity crash? To make matters worse, the IAEA proposes to allow an exemption from the new Type C cask for MOX fuel on the premise that it is low-dispersible material---a position that we have shown (in our technical note to IAEA Director General Hans Blix) is without merit and without supporting evidence.
It will be a violation of ICAO's public trust to ensure protection of the world's citizens against aviation hazards if, in the interest of collegiality with another international organization, it acquiesces in a safety rule that it knows to be inadequate.
Given the immediacy of the pending approval of the new air-shipment standard in early September, we would appreciate a prompt response to this letter.
Dr. Edwin Lyman
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