Nuclear Radiation and Aviation

Nuclear Radiation and Aviation

By: Warren Qualley

Like a lot of aspects that circle our daily lives and the environment, nuclear radiation and aviation is an area which by its nature, of being transported in the atmosphere, has become a part of meteorology.

The accidental (or intentional) release of nuclear radiation into the atmosphere is a very emotional issue. The first occurrence was the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear facility in the Ukraine in 1986. (1)  From an airline perspective, the main concern was the safety of passengers and the potential, but unknown impact on aircraft. The fact that humans can’t smell or see radiation yet know that it can be deadly makes it very frightening.

In the wake of the accident at Chernobyl, scientists had to get weather data for that region, and then plug that into computer dispersion models to get a 4-dimensional view of its radiations likely trajectory. Airlines needed to know the areas on the ground and in the sky to avoid an encounter with the radiation “cloud”.

More recently, the nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan was another example of an ominous cloud of radiation that presented risks to aviation. One of the biggest challenges in this and other similar events was getting ongoing accurate and timely information, which the computer dispersion models required. The governmental authorities are responsible for the flow of the information, yet they are concurrently busy with assisting the victims and containing the hazard. Commercial airlines were in constant contact with the authorities in these events and always acted conservatively to ensure the safety of their passengers and employees.

More will be learned from these events, with the goal of protecting people. There are currently developed technologies such as the MeteoSwiss which operates the CN-MET wind analysis and forecasting system for nuclear incidents in Switzerland and neighboring countries. (2) The accurate measurements and high-resolution model forecasts allows for determinations of wind fields and weather developments around Switzerland’s nuclear power stations and those in neighboring countries and thus to calculate the dispersion of contaminated air masses. This type of technology allows for the safety of those that would be in the path of harmful radiation clouds after a nuclear accident.