Five of the six biggest container shippers are maintaining routes to Tokyo and Yokohama after the U.S. Navy said radiation on vessels from the leaking Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant can be scrubbed off with soap and water.
A.P Moeller-Maersk A/S (MAERSKB), Mediterranean Shipping Co. and CMA CGM SA, the top three, are still serving Japan’s two busiest container ports, 2 1/2 weeks after an earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima plant, 220 kilometers (135 miles) to the north. Among the top six shippers, only Hapag-Lloyd AG, the No. 4, is diverting vessels to docks in the south of the country.
The Japanese government is allowing ships to sail as close as 30 kilometers to the stricken reactors, and the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, says operations in and out of Japan can continue as normal, with levels of radiation presenting no medical basis for imposing restrictions.
“These are extremely low levels and are easily cleaned off,” Commander Jeff Davis, a spokesman for Seventh Fleet, which is helping with recovery efforts, said by yesterday by telephone. “Even if they weren’t, they still wouldn’t rise to the level where they would cause any harm to human health.”
Tokyo port, which accounted for 22 percent of Japanese container throughput last year, according to market researcher Alphaliner, has tried to ease fears through steps including posting information about radiation readings. Levels were safe as of March 27, according to the Transport Ministry’s website.
Sales of radiation-detection devices to companies shipping cargoes to and from Japan have increased, U.K.-based safety-equipment supplier International Mining & Marine Ltd. said.
Japanese ports handle about 4 percent of the world’s boxes and, prior to the quake, 18 percent of the containership fleet by capacity was due to call in the country, according to data from the research unit of Clarkson Plc, the biggest shipbroker.
CMA CGM, based in Marseille, France, said on March 25 that all of its owned and chartered vessels would continue to call in Japan as scheduled, serving nine ports -- none of them in the contaminated area.
Evergreen Marine Corp. of Taipei, the fifth-largest container line, is serving Tokyo and Yokohama as usual, spokeswoman Katherine Ko said by telephone. Neptune Orient Lines Ltd. (NOL)’s APL unit, the world No. 6, is maintaining services to Yokohama, Japan’s second-biggest container port, spokesman Mike Zampa said today.
“Alarm bells aren’t ringing for the shipping industry at this stage,” Jan Fritz Hansen, executive vice president of the Copenhagen-based Danish Shipowners’ Association, whose members account for as much as 7 percent world sea transportation, said yesterday by phone. “It’s pretty much business as usual.”
Hamburg, Germany-based Hapag-Lloyd said March 25 that it would resume services to Nagoya, Japan’s third-largest container port, though the moratorium on sailings to Tokyo and Yokohama will be lifted only when the locations are “considered safe,” adding that “security is above everything.” Ships are being rerouted to ports further away from Fukushima, such as Kobe.
The U.S. fleet has taken steps to avoid contamination, including trying to keep ships upwind from the Fukushima plant and asking helicopter pilots to fly with windows closed, Davis said. For sailors on some land missions within 50 nautical miles of the power plant, it’s also administering potassium iodide.
Radiation on the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and helicopters using the ship as a base was cleaned off after the vessel passed through a plume on March 13, the spokesman said, adding that there was both surface and air contamination.
“It’s absolutely possible to protect our people against the possible effects of radiation while carrying out our mission to help the Japanese people,” Davis said. “It is a risk that absolutely can be mitigated and managed.”
The navy is working with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to clear harbors of wreckage from the March 11 tsunami and helping deliver aid. The seven container ports damaged in the disaster handled only 1.3 percent of Japanese container volumes last year, according to Alphaliner.
Japan is advising against sailing within 80 nautical miles of Fukushima because of debris dragged out to sea, Hidefumi Akagi, who is responsible for advising companies on ocean routes at the Japan Coast Guard, said today by phone.
Container lines including Copenhagen-based Maersk have set up their own exclusion zones that go beyond official recommendations. Neptune Orient’s APL division is keeping ships 200 nautical miles away from the plant and has stopped taking bookings for cargo to be hauled by land or barge into “high-risk” areas.
Overseas authorities are also scanning cargos, and the MOL Presence was turned away from the Chinese port of Xiamen last week after passing more than 120 kilometers off the coast of Fukushima prefecture on March 16. The vessel showed “abnormal” radiation levels, according to a March 25 notice on the website of the Xiamen Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau.
The MOL Presence exhibited a maximum of 3.5 microsieverts per hour of radiation, operator Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. said late yesterday, citing a report from the Chinese authorities. A chest X-ray gives a dose of 20 microsieverts, according to the U.K. Health Protection Agency’s website, and Jack Edlow, whose Washington-based Edlow International Co. specializes in shipping radioactive materials, said the quantity is “barely detectable.”
The ship, which was loaded with 4,698 containers, is heading for Kobe, Japan, where Mitsui will arrange for another inspection, the Tokyo-based shipper said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection scanned 355 boxes at the port of Los Angeles on the first container ship to arrive from Japan following the quake, according to operator APL. All boxes on the vessel, the APL Korea, were cleared for delivery.
Demand for detection devices ranging from hand-held units to instrumentation wired into the ship’s bridge has shown an “exponential” jump, said Alan Betts, sales manager at Sheffield, England-based International Mining & Marine. Delivery times have stretched to eight or nine weeks from two to three, he said.
Nippon Yusen KK (9101), Japan’s largest shipping line by sales, hasn’t seen any major impact on schedules because of the exclusion zone, Jun Katayama, a spokesman, said by phone. The company is operating liquefied-natural gas, oil and dry-bulk shipping operations as normal, he said today
Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd., the nation’s third-largest shipping line, has no plans to operate ships in Fukushima and the rest of Tohoku region, said Makoto Arai, a spokesman. There are no major ports in that area, he said. Commodity-shipping operations are also unaffected, he said today.
Orient Overseas (International) Ltd., Hong Kong’s biggest container line, is continuing services to all Japanese ports except those shut because of damage from the tsunami, it said in an e-mailed reply to questions today. No radiation has been found on any of its cargos, it said.
The company has been affected by Hapag-Lloyd’s decision to skip calls because it has an agreement to use space on those services. Its own vessels are still serving Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya, it said.
Two, Three Hours
Hanjin Shipping Co. (117930), the operator of a container terminal in Tokyo, began inspecting cargo for radiation a few days after the quake, said Sonya Cho, a spokeswoman. No contamination has been found, she said. The inspections take two or three hours and are causing few disruptions to cargo movements, she said.
Seoul-based Hyundai Merchant Marine Co. (011200) is operating its usual services, Lee Jun Ki, a spokesman, said by phone. STX Pan Ocean Co. (STX), South Korea’s biggest bulk carrier, also is operating normally at Japanese ports, spokesman Lim Wang Joo said.