Vienna, 12 September 1996 (RFE/RL) - The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said today that it has toughened its requirements for most containers carrying nuclear fuel.
But critics, including some environmentalists and airline pilots, fear governments and nuclear agencies in Western and Eastern Europe will be lulled by the changes into permitting increased air shipments of nuclear material. Critics also express concern that the standards aren't stringent enough.
The IAEA, a United Nations agency, acknowledges that the requirements offer greater protection in the event of a surface accident than they would in an air accident. But, the agency says, the container requirements conform to standards appropriate from what the agency terms "a financial and technical" point of view.
"If you had all the money in the world and didn't have a worry about weight or any other considerations in shipping, then specifications (for the containers) could be different. But experts have to balance a variety of factors," said IAEA spokesman David Kyd.
The International Federation of Airline Pilots says it is concerned about the safety of the containers and the danger of leakage of plutonium-laced fuel. The pilots' organization claims this could cause what it calls "a major ecological catastrophe."
Greenpeace, the international environmental organization, says that even with upgraded standards, the containers won't even match the safety standards established for flight recorders' black boxes. Greenpeace contends that tests conducted on the containers demonstrate safety only at speeds up to 80 kmph -- far less than the average speed of transport planes.
Greenpeace says crash-and-fire tests on the containers have been conducted separately, and so do not correspond to what really would happen in the event of a plane accident. Greenpeace wants Europe to follow the example of the United States, which has the toughest safety standards for nuclear containers.
Agnes Bishop, president of Canada's Atomic Energy Control Board and chair of the IAEA's safety advisory commission, acknowledged what she termed "strong opposing views of some member states" regarding the new air transport guidelines by those countries who wanted stricter rules.
The IAEA says flights carrying radioactive material in Europe began around two years ago. The IAEA says Britain and Belgium are two of the main countries from which nuclear fuel now is flown.
The IAEA says nuclear fuel may already be moving by air throughout Eastern Europe. The agency says it is unaware of any specific shipments. Agency spokesman Kyd said today it is likely that the number of nuclear air shipments will increase, but, he said, the preferred transportation mode for nuclear fuel in Eastern Europe is by train.
There are reports that Russia plans to transport nuclear fuel for Bulgaria's Kozloduy reactor by air. Ukraine's government already has approved an agreement to allow the transportation of nuclear materials through its territory.
According to agreements, the Czech Republic will supply Russia with uranium concentrate and Russia will supply nuclear fuel back to the Czech Republic for use in nuclear power plants. The Czech Republic will either store the used fuel, or send it back to Russia for further processing and subsequent return. Some or all of these materials could move by air.