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FOR RELEASE Wednesday, June 19, 1996
CONTACT: Sharon Tanzer (D.C.)


Bonn---The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should reject a German plan aimed at waiving strengthened safety standards for air shipments of nuclear fuel containing deadly plutonium, Paul Leventhal, president of the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute, urged today.

Leventhal, who heads a think tank concerned with proliferation and safety risks of plutonium, was in Bonn to brief Green faction Bundestag and Hessian state officials on implications of the German plan for future plutonium flights in and out of Frankfurt and other German airports.

The plan, developed by German federal authorities in the reactor-safety and radiation- protection officies, would allow mixed-oxide (MOX) plutonium-uranium fuel to be exempted from new requirements for shipment in "Type C" casks that are to be designed especially for transport by air. But so far industry has been unable to develop a crash-proof cask for air shipments, and the exemption will allow MOX fuel to be air shipped in weaker "Type B" casks that are now used for land and sea shipments.

"If it is impossible to develop a crash-proof cask, "Leventhal said, "neither plutonium nor MOX fuel should be shipped by air. Unfortunately such an obvious conclusion seems lost on the IAEA and the industry people advising it."

The exemption is based on an unproven and untested German claim that MOX fuel can qualify as "low dispersible material" and therefore the highly toxic plutonium it contains would not spread in a plane crash. Even if the stronger Type C cask were developed to IAEA's specifications, it could not withstand the impacts and fires that occur in plane crashes, Leventhal said.

Last September, an IAEA technical committee adopted the German-sponsored exemption that would allow MOX fuel to be shipped by air in Type B casks. It also approved specifications for a Type C cask that fall far below the crash and fire standards set by the United States for shipments of plutonium by air.

The United States has put the IAEA on notice that it will not allow plutonium flights over the U.S. in the proposed Type B or C casks. No plutonium flights have taken place within or through the United States since the tough standard was adopted by Congress in 1975 because all attempts to build a cask that meets the standard have failed.

Nonetheless, Leventhal said, the IAEA's Advisory Commission on Safety Standards could advise the IAEA Board of Governors to approve the new cask standards as early as this fall. "What the commission should do is advise the IAEA to set realistic crash and fire standards and to prohibit air shipments of plutonium and MOX fuel until a cask is built and tested to meet the standards."

Britain now flies fresh MOX fuel to Switzerland and is expected to fly such fuel to Germany if the weak IAEA standard is approved. German federal efforts to fly unused MOX breeder fuel from Frankfurt to Scotland have been blocked thus far by Hesse officials, but federal officials may try again once such an international safety standard is in place.

Leventhal released an exchange of correspondence he and NCI Scientific Director Edwin Lyman have had with IAEA Director General Hans Blix and IAEA Nuclear Safety Department Director Morris Rosen. Expressing to Blix "a deep sense of amazement and outrage" over a decade-long IAEA effort that produced a defective air-shipment safety standard, they rejected Rosen's response that the new standard contained "significantly more rigorous requirements."

Noting that the German exemption for low-dispersible material was tailor-made to fit the specifications of MOX fuel, they warned the exemption would increase the allowable airborne release of radioactivity from an accident. In the event of a crash of a cargo plane carrying MOX fuel, the result could be a substantially higher number of radiation-induced injuries than is permitted now for accidents involving land-based transport.

"The criteria for the new casks do not come close to realistic accident conditions," Leventhal said. "Existing casks should be banned altogether from air transport."

Leventhal pointed to a study commissioned by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) which found the tests for the new Type C air-transport packages to be much less rigorous than for the so-called "black box" flight recorders. The "black box" test corresponds to an impact speed of 130 meters/second---virtually identical to the U.S. cask standard---compared with 90 meters/second for the new casks. The fire test for the existing cask (800C fire for 60 minutes) is also considerably less severe than the test required for flight recorders (1100C for 60 minutes).

The U.S. Government opposed the German request for a waiver of the new safety standards. U.S. domestic plutonium packages must be able to survive an impact of 129 meters/second. For international overflights of U.S. territory, the impact test is 282 meters/second. The U.S. also requires the same cask to undergo sequential crash and fire tests; the IAEA does not.

In their letter to the IAEA, Leventhal and Lyman proposed that the safety advisory commission establish a special panel from which representatives of industry and government bureaucracies with a special interest in MOX fuel would be excluded and representatives of ICAO and other international aviation organizations would be included. They asked the panel to use the most severe aviation accidents as a guide---the crash of an El Al cargo plane into an Amsterdam Apartment complex (150 meters/second) in 1992 and the crash of a Pacific Southwest Airlines passenger plane (282 meters/second) in California in 1987.

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