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Friday, September 13, 1996

CONTACT: Sharon Tanzer/Dr. Edwin Lyman

10-Year Effort to Require Crashproof Cask Fails:


NCI Warns Nations to Bar Plutonium Flown in IAEA Casks from Their Airspace

Washington---The Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) today warned delegates gathering in Vienna for the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that a new standard approved by the agency's governing board clears the way for frequent air shipments of highly toxic plutonium over their nations in casks not designed to survive a severe crash.

Widespread shipments of plutonium by plane have been held up for a decade to allow the IAEA to develop a standard that finally requires a tougher cask to be used for air shipments than the multi-purpose cask currently authorized for air, land and sea shipments. The agency had put member states on notice that this cask offered far less protection in an aviation accident than a surface accident and that they could forbid its use for air shipments.

On September 9, the IAEA's governing board approved criteria for a separate air- shipment cask. "But the new IAEA standard is a sham," charged NCI President Paul Leventhal, "because it purports to establish much stronger crash and fire standards for air shipments than surface shipments of plutonium, but, in fact, permits continued use of the weaker cask for air transports indefinitely."

"Grandfathering" provisions in the new regulations allow existing surface-transport casks to continue to be used for plutonium air transports so long as there is "multi-lateral approval" by shipping and receiving states and by states through which the transports are routed.

"It is noteworthy," Leventhal said, "that the regulations were written specifically to exclude states that are over-flown by these deadly cargos from having any say in the matter. Since it is now possible to fly plutonium non-stop, even from Britain and France to Japan, the IAEA is imposing an outrageous, involuntary risk on dozens of en-route countries."

Leventhal noted that no nation has been able to develop a cask for plutonium air shipments. The IAEA standard establishes specifications for an air-shipment ("Type C") cask, but they fall far below U.S. requirements, as well as the international requirements for the "black box" package for flight data recorders used in airliners.

Provisions of the new IAEA standard permit continued use of existing surface- transport ("Type B") casks for air transport of plutonium in bulk or MOX form with multi-lateral approval of the parties directly involved. Even a requirement that MOX fuel be tested, to prove it is "low dispersible material" suitable for air-transport in Type B casks, need not take effect as long as existing type B casks are available, Leventhal noted.

The U.S. government had objected that this exemption "negates the original intent for developing [separate] air transport standards," and it told the agency it will bar plutonium flights in IAEA-approved casks from U.S. airspace because these casks fall far short of U.S. requirements. Nonetheless, the United States joined the consensus on the IAEA board in approving the new standard for the rest of the world.

Leventhal said the IAEA board acted by consensus at the urging of a handful of nations whose plutonium industries had a direct commercial stake in the outcome--- particularly Britain, France, Germany and Japan.

"This action demonstrates a greater concern with the economic toll to the plutonium industry of developing a truly crash-worthy cask than the human toll if a plutonium transport plane crashes into a densely populated area," Leventhal said.

Last week, NCI announced a joint campaign with Greenpeace International to urge nations to exercise their legal rights to bar overflights of plutonium in IAEA-approved casks. "The IAEA has been deaf to technical objections raised by the United States government and by international aviation organizations," Leventhal said. "We have no choice but to appeal to nations along the prospective shipment routes to protect their citizens by keeping these deadly shipments out of their airspace."

He noted that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) permits countries to file variations requiring permission before dangerous goods can over-fly their territories. "Even if ICAO incorporates the IAEA standard into its regulations, ICAO gives nations the choice of barring plutonium transports from their airspace," Leventhal said. "All nations should put the interest of their citizens first by advising ICAO that plutonium flown in IAEA- approved casks will be prohibited over their territories."

ICAO raised technical objections, especially to the IAEA contention that "high speed impact and long duration fires are not expected to be encountered simultaneously" in aircraft accidents. The IAEA thus allows separate crash and fire tests to be performed on different casks rather than sequential crash and fire tests on the same cask. This led an ICAO experts' group to conclude that "the sequence of tests as presently proposed for Type C packagings did not replicate what was likely to happen in an aircraft accident."

"This is safety reform, IAEA style," Leventhal said. He noted that the Type B cask is rated to survive a crash of 30 miles per hour, compared with a U.S. requirement of 300 mph. The ICAO standard for flight data recorders is about comparable to the U.S. plutonium cask standard.

Hundreds of air shipments may be needed to move tens of tons of plutonium from Britain and France to Japan. The most likely route is across Northern Europe, Russia, China and the Korean Peninsula. There are also alternative French and British territorial routes to Japan that would involve flying plutonium over Caribbean, South and Central American and South Pacific countries.

The United States and Canada barred Japanese plutonium air shipments over their territories when such a route was proposed in 1987, following Japan's failure to prove a crash-worthy cask. The United States obtained a written pledge from Japan to conform to the strict U.S. requirement for a crash-worthy cask when using U.S. airspace, but this obligation does not apply to non-U.S. airspace, including Japan's.

The new IAEA standard also permits Britain to continue its present practice of flying plutonium in the form of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel into Switzerland and out of Belgium, criss-crossing a number of European countries. British MOX shipments to Germany also would be permitted.

"The IAEA's approval of air transports of extremely toxic plutonium is a bizarre sequel to the recent TWA crash," Leventhal said, "not to mention the 1992 accident involving an El Al cargo plane that crashed into an apartment complex near Amsterdam at 335 mph and burned for hours. If the cargo in the El Al crash had been plutonium, the human toll could have extended far beyond the crash site, and much of the surrounding area including Amsterdam could be contaminated with deadly radioactivity to this day. It is remarkable that the Netherlands chaired the IAEA Board when it approved plutonium flights."

NOTE: Color maps of plutonium air shipment routes, technical and historical backgrounders, and NCI correspondence with the IAEA and ICAO, can be downloaded from a special section of NCI Web site (http://www.nci.org/airtrans.htm).

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