After 9:30 AM, Wednesday, September 4, 1996

Damon Moglen, Greenpeace International

Sharon Tanzer, Nuclear Control Inst.


Greenpeace and NCI Condemn the Plan And Launch Campaign to Block It

WASHINGTON---Greenpeace and Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) today warned that a new international standard for air shipments of plutonium, set to be approved next week by a UN agency, could lead to catastrophic releases of radioactivity in an air transport accident. They announced a campaign to demand a ban on plutonium air shipments and to call on en-route nations to bar plutonium flights over their territories.

"Despite the growing public concerns about air transport safety and the recognized toxicity of plutonium, tens of tons of plutonium could be shipped by air in containers not designed to survive a severe crash," the two organizations said in a joint statement explaining their campaign. The Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is poised to sign off on the new standard when it meets in Vienna, Sept. 9-13.

At a press conference, NCI and Greenpeace released documents showing that the IAEA is pressing ahead despite strong reservations by three international aviation organizations and the U.S. Government.

Reservations include a study done for the Dangerous Goods Panel of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that shows the proposed plutonium shipping cask will be tested to withstand far less severe crash and fire conditions than the "black box" package for the flight data and voice recorders aboard aircraft. Also, the U.S. Government strongly objected to a special exemption from use of this cask, intended to apply to plutonium when it is shipped in the form of finished fuel elements for nuclear power reactors.

But the IAEA is planning to approve the standard and then address later the unresolved safety issues identified by aviation organizations. And the U.S. Government, after advising the IAEA that shipments of plutonium in IAEA-approved casks would be barred from U.S. airspace, said it does not oppose use of these casks elsewhere in the world.

"The entire process is a fraud," said Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute. "The IAEA set out to establish a stricter standard for shipping plutonium by air than by land or sea. Now, after a decade of deliberations, the IAEA is presenting us with the status quo ante: a ridiculously weak air-crash standard that industry still cannot meet, plus an exemption that still permits plutonium to be flown in the weaker casks used for surface transports. And, in effect, the U.S. Government is saying, 'Stay out of our airspace, and the rest of the world be damned.' This is sheer negligence."

"Plutonium and air transport constitute a recipe for nuclear disaster---a nightmare on the scale of Chernobyl," said Damon Moglen of the Greenpeace International Nuclear Campaign. "The IAEA appears more concerned with plutonium profits than with public safety." He cited an IAEA technical document which stated that a test could be specified for an air-transport cask that "would reduce public risk from the transport of radioactive material or radiation exposure to zero, but would exact a tremendous economic toll from world economies." Moglen said, "Obviously, for the IAEA, the economic toll is more important than the human toll."

Dr. Edwin Lyman, NCI's scientific director and a physicist, challenged the technical analysis used by the IAEA to justify air shipments in existing casks when plutonium is in the form of plutonium-uranium, mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. "The claim that plutonium in this form will not be widely dispersed in a violent crash and fire is unsupported and unsupportable," he said. "The process by which this standard has been set was driven by political and economical concerns of a handful of IAEA member states with a vested interest in the outcome. What passes for extensive technical analysis is really hand-waving argumentation supported by sloppy back-of-the-envelope calculations that lack scientific rigor."

Based on weight constraints, each transport could contain up to one-and-a- half metric tons (MT)---1,500 kilograms---of plutonium in approximately 10 to 30 MT of fuel elements---compared with the few micrograms of plutonium which if inhaled is sufficient to cause cancer, Lyman noted. To move all 60 tons of Japanese plutonium from Britain and France to Japan (after reprocessing from spent fuel and fabrication into MOX fuel) could require as few as 40 or as many as 600 individual air transports, he estimated.

The Japanese had to cancel plans to fly plutonium from France a decade ago at U.S. and Canadian insistence after Japan failed to prove a crashworthy cask. Japan is now considering air shipments of MOX fuel based on the new IAEA guidelines. U.S. law still bars Japanese plutonium flights from American air space. The most likely alternative route is over Russia, although flights with refuelling stops in French and British territory in the Caribbean, South America and the South Pacific could also be considered. Britain already flies plutonium MOX fuel into Switzerland and out of Belgium. Britain is expected to increase MOX flights and to include Germany and Japan after it opens a large MOX-fuel fabrication plant soon.

Greenpeace and NCI sent letters appealing to each of the 35 members of the IAEA Board of Governors* to address unresolved safety issues before, not after, approving an air-shipment standard and to prohibit plutonium air transports in the meantime.

* Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, Kuwait, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Romania, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Slovak Republic, South Africa, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States and Uruguay.

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