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Lessons of TWA and ValuJet Crashes Are Ignored:



Nuclear Agency Overrides Concerns of U.S. Government And International Aviation Organizations In Pressing Ahead with New Rule

August 5, 1996

CONTACT: Sharon Tanzer
Dr. Edwin Lyman

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is expected to adopt new standards next month that will allow tons of highly toxic plutonium to be shipped by air in containers that could not withstand a high-velocity crash. A speck of plutonium inhaled into the lungs can cause cancer.

The IAEA Board of Governors is expected to act when it next meets in Vienna, September 9-13, despite strong reservations expressed by the U.S. government and by international aviation organizations.

The U.S. government has put the IAEA on notice that it will not allow plutonium flights over the United States because the containers to be approved by the IAEA do not meet much tougher U.S. standards.

Three international aviation organizations also have been critical of the impending IAEA guidelines. A technical study done for the Dangerous Goods Panel of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) found the impact tests required by the IAEA for the new air-transport containers ("Type C") to be far less rigorous than the international requirement for the so-called "black box" flight recorders. The test for the flight-recorder package corresponds to an impact speed of 138 meters per second (309 mph)---virtually identical to the U.S. standard for plutonium air-shipment casks---compared with 90 meters per second (201 mph) for the new IAEA-certified plutonium casks.

In October 1992, when an El Al cargo plane crashed into an apartment complex near Amsterdam, the impact speed was found to be 150 meters per second (335 mph).

New IAEA transport standards for the first time will establish separate criteria for air shipment of radioactive materials. Today, a single type of container ("Type B") can be used for air as well as road, rail, and sea transport. That container is required to withstand an impact of only 13 meters per second (30 mph).

However, the new air-transport standard, in addition to being weaker than what the U.S. requires and the aviation organizations recommend, is further undercut by an exemption to allow plutonium to continue to be shipped in the old Type B casks if fabricated into fuel elements rather than shipped in bulk form. The exemption is based on a German study claiming that plutonium in fabricated fuel elements would have a very low rate of dispersal in a crash and fire when casks are breached. The Nuclear Control Institute sent a technical analysis to IAEA Director General Hans Blix showing that the low-dispersibility claim for so-called mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in a severe crash and fire is defective and unproven and should be reviewed by independent experts before the exemption is allowed.

Britain already flies plutonium in MOX form to Switzerland and from Belgium. It is expected to step up flights when it begins operating a large MOX-fuel fabrication plant soon.

Japan, which was forced in 1987 to cancel plans to fly plutonium from France because of objections by the United States and Canada to overflights of uncrashworthy casks, is again considering plutonium air shipments based on the new IAEA guidelines. Japan would have to re-route these flights from Europe, containing a total of about 50 metric tons of plutonium in MOX fuel, to avoid U.S. and Canadian air space---presumably by flying over Russia or over Caribbean, South American and South Pacific countries.

In a letter to Nuclear Control Institute, the head of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has conceded, "There are issues which ICAO and IAEA have identified as requiring further study." The IAEA is sponsoring a meeting in October to review outstanding safety issues following its anticipated approval of the new air-shipment guidelines in September. NCI, in letters to the IAEA and the international aviation organizations, has demanded that approval of the guidelines be deferred until all outstanding safety issues are resolved. "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," NCI wrote to the aviation organizations.

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NOTE TO EDITORS: Background materials, including NCI's exchange of correspondence with the IAEA and international aviation organizations, is available from NCI or can be downloaded directly from our World Wide Web site (http://www.nci.org/airtrans.htm).

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