Widespread air transport of plutonium planned


By Lisa Macdonald

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last week approved new regulations allowing widespread air transport of plutonium and other nuclear materials. The decision massively increases the possibility of extensive nuclear contamination from aircraft accidents.

According to Greenpeace and the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), tens of tonnes of plutonium will be allowed to be shipped by air in containers not designed to survive a severe crash. Submissions to the IAEA by the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations state that 50% of the impact speeds during en-route accidents lie beyond the new safety standards for the nuclear transport containers to be used.

The new regulations also fail to meet the current civil aviation standards for black box flight recorders, which have frequently been destroyed in aircraft crashes. In addition, the new regulations provide an exclusion for the air transport of mixed plutonium/uranium fuel, allowing it to be transported in the old, obsolete containers.

Documents acquired by Greenpeace reveal that the IAEA specifically chose not to develop safer containers because they would cost too much: "It would be relatively simple to specify a performance test for a package which would guarantee that no package would ever fail in an accident situation. Such a performance test 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."

Members of the IAEA board of governors include Australia, China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, South Africa, Britain and the USA. The US government has said that shipments of plutonium in IAEA-approved casks will be barred from US airspace, but that it does not oppose use of these casks elsewhere.

Greenpeace and NCI have launched a campaign to have all plutonium air shipments banned. They are calling on countries to bar plutonium flights over their territories.