Qantas is now ensuring that its flight crews do not overnight in Tokyo by stopping all Narita flights in Hong Kong each way to rotate crews there rather than in Japan’s largest city.

Jetstar is achieving the same result by routing its Tokyo flights through Osaka, which is it also serves directly.

While Qantas is at pains to stress that it is doing this for logistical reasons rather than radioactivity concerns, the Australian and International Pilots Association sees it somewhat differently.

It’s spokesperson Captain Richard Woodward says:

“As always, AIPA takes a very conservative view when it comes to protecting the safety of pilots.

“We inquired yesterday as to the status of Narita Airport and have been in ongoing contact with both Qantas and other IFALPA associations about the actions taken by their airlines to protect their crews.

“Given the uncertainty and confusion around the actual radiation levels in the area, it is entirely appropriate that pilots do not take any risks by slipping at Narita Airport as per usual.

“We have also asked Qantas to do as other airlines are doing which is to check all aircraft that have been in the airspace above and around the affected areas for residual radioactivity as soon as possible.”

Qantas says it isn’t (at the moment) checking its aircraft and is under no Australian legal obligation to do so.

The dislocation for other air traffic in or near Japan has been more severe than for Qantas and Jetstar given their flight paths which so far largely avoid the identified radiation risk zones. Even before a set of nuclear emergency warnings concerning Asia-Pacific airspace, primarily in the northern parts of the hemisphere, were issued by the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) in London the major China and European flag carriers had variously suspended flights to Tokyo or in response to flight attendant and pilot demands, rescheduled flights to make overnight crew rest breaks occur in Korea or further away from Japan.

While the inconvenience or disruption to flights is a triviality compared to the horrific destruction caused by Friday afternoon’s yet again recalculated 9.0 magnitude earthquake and following giant tsunami, it has helped bring the truth about the gravity of the multi reactor nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi complex into the open.

A plume of radioactive particles extending into the stratosphere from the Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex makes a mockery of claims that Japan’s nuclear crisis isn’t comparable to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

The argument about Chernobyl has until today been predicated on the different, and much more inherently dangerous design of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, but the new ground for comparison that is emerging is the potential massive release of radioactive substances should one or more of the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi experience full or major partial meltdowns of their uranium or uranium/plutonium based fuel rods, or the destruction of cooling ponds in which a wider range of highly radioactive long term nuclear wastes are held in medium to short term storage.

A detailed lay language essay on this by Michael R James can be found here.

The VACC in London was authorised by the International Atomic Energy Agency to issue 10 regional nuclear emergency flight information bulletins to assist airlines to avoid a plume of radioactive material over the Fukushima Daiichi reactors which has reached the stratosphere where it is mixing with and dispersing into high altitude winds that can carry the particles across northern Asia as well as as into the predominantly  westerly winds across the north Pacific.

It has also been an unusual late winter in terms of weather patterns in the higher northern hemisphere, with strong than normal north-south-north wind flows, some of which are contributing to the snowy misery of survivors and recovery teams in the tsunami ravaged sections of Honshu NE of Tokyo.

These radioactive clouds are being tracked as closely as possible to keep airliners away from them even at altitudes as high as 43,000 feet or 12,400 metres which is as high as current commercial jets might cruise.

The VAAC was co-opted by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2007 to also alert airlines and airports to accidental releases of nuclear contamination.

Exasperation with the quality of information coming out of the Japanese nuclear authority, the government and the Tokyo Electric company led to harsh words from the French nuclear authority this morning.

It said  the Daiichi accident could be classed as a level 6 event on the scale of one to 7. The Chernobyl calamity in 1986 began as a level 6 event and was then elevated to level 7, which until now has been the only nuclear incident to be ranked at both of the highest levels of threat.

This morning the Japan nuclear authority insisted that level 4, an event with purely local effects, was the appropriate level,  which is clearly not what the normally ultra tactful International Atomic Energy Agency thought when it directed the VAAC to issue the warnings to airlines, and also to the airports at which any aircraft exposed to radiation must be thoroughly decontaminated under international conventions.

The US think tank, the Institute for Science and International Security said the situation at Daiichi had worsened considerably and was now closer to a level 6 event and ‘may unfortunately reach a level 7’.

Similar warnings were issued by Stratfor. The importance of these US warnings is that both think tanks,  like the VAAC, can be considered proxies for the concerns of the US authorities and the International Atomic Energy Agency,  with ISIS and Stratfor always keeping in close contact with very well informed sources.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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