Federal officials found traces of radiation on United and American airlines jets that arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport from Tokyo Wednesday, but later determined that the planes’ cargo and passengers were not at risk.
As concerns mount about the radiation spewing into the atmosphere from Japan’s crippled nuclear reactors, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it had begun monitoring airline and maritime traffic for radiation contamination “out of an abundance of caution.”
Mayor Richard Daley acknowledged Thursday that inbound flights from Tokyo had set off radiation detectors at O’Hare, but he offered no details and said federal officials will be handling the situation.
“Of course the protection of the person coming off the plane is very important in regards to any radiation, especially within their families and anything else,” Daley said at a news conference to discuss his trip to China this week.
Customs officials detected trace elements of radiation on cargo containers on two flights that landed at O’Hare from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, Wednesday, and an additional flight operated by American Airlines into Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport.
Officials quickly determined that the packages were safe, sources said. On the two American flights, the isotope discovered was consistent with that emitted by medical devices, and the jets were quickly returned to service, said Tim Smith, spokesman for the Dallas-based carrier.
“We’ve said all along that we’re monitoring every possible aspect of the Japan operation,” Smith added.
The radiation plume forming over the Pacific from Japan’s nuclear crisis is a growing concern for U.S. carriers, who want to avoid contaminating aircraft surfaces and exposing passengers and employees to harmful radioactive isotopes.
For the first time in recent memory, maps used to guide aircraft around hazards like storms and active volcanoes now carry a red radioactive sign to denote a no-fly zone over the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors. Flight dispatchers Thursday were also given the coordinates of an area over the Pacific where airborne concentrations are of greatest concern, sources told the Tribune
Customs officials routinely screen overseas flights and passengers for radioactive materials that pose security risks, and scanned more than half a million flights for nuclear materials in 2010, said an airline official who had been briefed on the initiative.
Frontline personnel are equipped with personal radiation detectors that can sniff out radiological materials, while all airports have more sensitive devices that can determine both the presence and type of radiation encountered, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a news release.
The presence of radiation isn’t unusual on aircraft and may be linked to a variety of sources, including travel at high altitudes. Still, federal officials provided few details about why they were screening air traffic or the hazards they were trying to detect.
“No aircraft entering the United States (Wednesday) tested positive for radiation at harmful levels,” the department said in a prepared statement.
The airline source briefed on the initiative said that the highest reading on any flight from Japan, Wednesday, was roughly equivalent to one hour of commercial flight. The average reading was several hundred times less than the radiation in a single chest x-ray, he said.
A spokeswoman for Chicago-based United Airlines declined comment and directed a reporter to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol for information.
The radiation alert in Chicago and Dallas was first reported by the New York Post.
Tribune reporters John Byrne and Liam Ford contributed.