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Monday AMs September 21, 1998

CONTACT: Sharon Tanzer


Vienna--The Nuclear Control Institute today warned delegates to the annual meeting here of the International Atomic Energy Agency that there were "gaping holes" in the legal framework regulating transports of ultrahazardous radioactive materials, leaving "coastal nations that receive no benefits from the shipments at grave risk of environmental disaster without any legal protections."

NCI issued a report, prepared by Professor Jon M. Van Dyke of the University of Hawaii School of Law, assessing a recent IAEA review of the adequacy of international treaties and regulations that apply to nuclear transports. Professor Van Dyke, a leading expert on international environmental and transport law, found that the IAEA report "is misleading in lulling the reader to assume that a comprehensive legal regime has been developed." The IAEA's General Conference will take up the agency's report this week.

The IAEA report was prompted by the refusal of a diplomatic conference one year ago to include trans-boundary shipments in a new international convention governing the safety of highly radioactive spent fuel and the management of other radioactive wastes. Shipping states out-muscled en-route states in keeping regulation of spent-fuel and waste shipments out of the convention. The IAEA was requested to prepare the study of the existing legal framework on transports to address the concerns of coastal nations.

Professor Van Dyke found that the IAEA report mistakenly treats radioactive materials as "just another form of 'dangerous goods'" and fails to recognize they are "ultrahazardous" materials. "Shipment of these extremely dangerous materials will continue to violate fundamental norms of international law," Van Dyke asserts, until shippers agree to protect the interests of coastal nations and ensure that "the risks [the shipments] create are not transferred from those that benefit from these shipments to those who gain nothing from them."

The Nuclear Control Institute has written delegates to the IAEA meeting urging their support for a resolution requiring the negotiation of a new convention on safe transport of radioactive materials. Turkey and New Zealand are among the nations advocating such a convention. "This problem will become more urgent as the number, frequency and size of nuclear transports multiply over the next decade," said NCI President Paul Leventhal in a letter to delegates of en-route states.

NCI advocates a separate international convention on radioactive shipments that includes prior notice to and advance emergency planning with en-route states, as well as liability, salvage and environmental-assessment obligations on shippers.

Radioactive transports are becoming highly controversial. Transports of spent fuel from power reactors in France and Germany were suspended earlier this year after the discovery of radioactive contamination of the shipping casks and transport vehicles. British air shipments of highly toxic plutonium continue despite the absence of a shipping cask that could withstand a high-velocity crash.

In January, Caribbean countries protested a shipment of 60 highly radioactive, glass blocks of nuclear waste through the Panama Canal. Peaceful demonstrators boarded the ship as it entered the canal, demonstrating its vulnerability to terrorists. The next such shipment is expected this fall. The first of dozens of sea shipments of plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel is due to leave the United Kingdom for Japan early next year. Japan continues to resist a requirement by the United States that all such shipments of weapons-usable plutonium recovered from U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel be accompanied by an armed escort vessel.

In his report, Van Dyke noted that "the shipping and nuclear nations currently do provide notification to their close allies," but leave the smaller Pacific and Caribbean nations in the dark, a situation Van Dyke charges is "unfair and unacceptable." "Consultation regarding route selection and emergency planning is in everyone's best interest." Van Dyke also calls for agreements regarding salvage responsibilities, liability of shippers for damages, preparation of environmental assessments, and contingency planning to handle shore emergencies and salvage responsibilities.

"The duty to protect and preserve the marine environment is just as much an international norm as the rights to innocent and transit passage," Van Dyke concludes. "A new regime establishing clear rules must be developed." Prior consultation and prior notification "can only lead to safer voyages."

The Van Dyke report, "The Need for Further International Action Regarding Safety of Sea Transport of Ultrahazardous Radioactive Materials," as well as other NCI legal and safety studies of such transports, are available from Nuclear Control Institute and can be downloaded from its website at http://www.nci.org/seatrans.htm

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