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Wednesday, August 31,1994

CONTACT: Sharon Tanzer


The Nuclear Control Institute today called on the British Government to prohibit plutonium flights from Britain to Switzerland in casks that meet discredited international standards but are not certified to withstand a high-velocity crash as required in the United States. A similar plan to fly plutonium from Germany to Scotland was blocked by German state authorities last year.

The Institute's request is in response to a recent announcement by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd that it flew plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel from Carlisle airport to Zurich, Switzerland. Additional air shipments are to take place over the next 12 months, according to BNFL.

The NCI letter pointed out that IAEA technical consultants are meeting in Vienna this week to review new guidelines for air transport of radioactive material. Until the International Atomic Energy Agency completes its work on this new set of guidelines, the IAEA itself has advised member states that "[C]learly, individual states have the option to forbid" transport of radioactive material by air. Current guidelines apply equally to road, rail, sea and air transport and are considered by the IAEA to be insufficient to protect plutonium and other radioactive shipments against a high-speed air crash.

"Since BNFL is prepared to ignore the IAEA's advisory and carry on business as usual, it is up to the Ministry of Transport to put a halt to these dangerous flights," Paul Leventhal, NCI president, wrote to Dr. Brian Mawhinney, U.K. Secretary of State for Transport. "We urge you to instruct the U.K. delegation to call for a thorough review of the stronger U.S. air-transport requirements" with an eye to their adoption by the IAEA.

Since 1975, the U.S. has required that a plutonium container be able to withstand a high-velocity crash and has imposed stringent testing requirements. In 1986, a Japanese prototype container failed a U.S. crash test in which it was rocket-propelled into a hard target at a speed of 129 meters/second (288 mph). In 1987, Congress required a drop test of a plutonium package from a cargo aircraft's maximum cruising altitude and an actual "worst-case" crash test at 282 meters/second (630 mph) of a cargo aircraft fully loaded with dummy plutonium packages. By comparison, the IAEA requires a package be dropped 9 meters (30 ft.) onto a hard surface-equivalent to 13 meters/second (30 mph).

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