April 18, 2011

Should those using business aviation to reach Japan and other Asian destinations be concerned about exposure to dangerous levels of radiation as the nuclear crisis in Japan continues to unfold?

Dr. Glenn Fjoven doesn’t think so. Fjoven is a professor of nuclear and radiological engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

“Your dose just from flying the plane at altitude is ten to a hundred times more” because of existing man-made and cosmic radiation than anything you might receive from flying near the damaged Japanese reactors, he said.

“There is no cause for concern,” Fjoven continued. “There is no out-of-the-ordinary risk.”

Shortly after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami ravaged the Dai-Ichi plant in March, aircraft and passengers arriving in the United States from Japan began showing increased levels of radiation. Efforts to monitor radiation levels on arriving ships, airplanes and passengers were boosted as a result.

At O’Hare Airport in Chicago, IL, aviation officials said the cargo holds in as many as six aircraft arriving from Japan triggered radiation alarms, as did many passengers, according to the Chicago Tribune. Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol agents began screening passengers arriving from Japan at several airports across the U.S.

Government officials hastened to point out that in no case did they find dangerous levels of radiation at airports, on airplanes or among passengers coming from Japan.

Should business aviation operators in Asia monitor radiation exposure as well?

“If you had some suspicion because you flew right over the [Dai-Ichi] plant during a radiological event, yes, I’d say you ought to be smart and screen the aircraft,” Fjoven said. Otherwise, “I don’t see any need for that at this time.”

However, aftershocks continue to rattle Fukushima Prefecture and other areas of northern Japan that were badly damaged by the March 11th earthquake and tsunami. Fjoven pointed out the situation could change drastically in a very short time and said monitoring news broadcasts would certainly be warranted if you are contemplating a flight in the area.

Fjoven’s take on the lack of immediate danger to aviation interests operating in Japan is echoed by the United Nations (UN). The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said in a statement on April 14th that “United Nations organizations closely monitoring the effects of the damaged Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant remain confident that current radiation levels do not present health or transportation safety hazards to passengers and crew.”

While the Japanese government raised its estimate of the critical nature of the Fukushima nuclear situation to the same level as the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, officials said radiation levels “remain well within safe limits from a health perspective.”

However, that does not mean caution is unwarranted, said J.R. Russell, president of Pro- Active Sytems, an aviation safety company based in Denver, CO. Because of the continued aftershocks and the possibility they might worsen the situation at the Dai-Ichi plant, he recommended a fuel- management strategy with a wide margin for change.

“When the situation was more of an unknown than it is now, we were ‘tankering’ fuel into the Tokyo airports, so that, just in case something happened and we needed to get out of there in a hurry, we’d have enough fuel on the airplane to get somewhere safe,” Russell said. “We carried enough fuel to get from Tokyo to Hong Kong, Guam or even Hawaii in the event fuel supplies in Tokyo were interrupted.”

He recommended several websites with information on flying in the vicinity of Japan during the ongoing nuclear crisis:

In addition, the FAA has published several Notices to Airmen (NOTAMS) pertaining to the nuclear crisis. You can find them on the agency’s website www.faa.gov.