BERLIN/NEW YORK (Reuters) - German shipping companies are avoiding Tokyo Bay area ports due to radiation fears and Japan could face severe supply chain bottlenecks as vessels get diverted, ship industry officials said on Thursday.
Any logistical setbacks could mean major delays and seaborne congestion at Japan’s terminals including Tokyo, hindering recovery efforts in the wake of the March 11 earthquake.
"The last thing Japan needs right now is for people to abandon them," said Tim Wickmann, chief executive of MCC Transport a unit of Danish oil and shipping group A.P. Moller-Maersk MAERSKb.CO.
Among those that have stopped going to Tokyo for the time being are Hapag-Lloyd HPLG.UL -- the world's fifth-biggest container shipper part-owned by tour operator TUI AG TUIGn.DE -- and container ship operator Claus-Peter Offen.
The firms have also stopped calling at the port of Yokohama, which is part of the Tokyo Bay stretch of waterways.
“We don’t want to take any security risks,” a Hapag-Lloyd spokeswoman said on Thursday.
"We've seen a slowdown or stoppage in cargoes to Japan since the situation remains quite uncertain," George Saroglou, chief operating officer at oil tanker company Tsakos Energy Navigation Ltd TNP.N told Reuters on the sidelines of the Capital Link Shipping Forum in New York. "This is something that in the short-term is bearish for tanker operators."
According to shipping agent Inchcape Shipping Services, with the exception of Kashima, Onahama and Sendai - which remain closed - and an oil terminal at Chiba that is partially operational, all of Japan’s oil terminals are open.
The German government had recommended that ships give the area around Fukushima nuclear plant area a wide berth of about 100 km (62 miles) over concerns of radiation exposure to crews.
That is much less than the 250 km distance between the nation’s capital and the Fukushima plant.
Offen said in addition to any threat to a crew’s health, radioactive contamination of a container ship and its load were not covered by insurance.
Rival shipping company Hamburg Sued had suspended calls at the ports of Tokyo and Yokohama but resumed trips there on Thursday. “We are looking very closely at the weather situation,” a company spokeswoman said.
Container shipments to eastern Japan could come to a virtual standstill if maritime firms decide Tokyo, its fourth largest port, was too dangerous.
“I think that shippers around Asia in such case will stop their cargoes to eastern Japan. They will hold the cargo at various ports -- Korea, Taiwan or other nearby ports,” MCC Transport’s Wickmann said.
Nearly two weeks after the disaster, the world’s third largest economy is grappling with threats from radiation leaks as Tokyo’s 13 million people were told not to give infants tap water.
MCC Transport has continued normal operations of its four shipping lines to Japan.
“As long as the authorities consider the port safe, we want to go. But of course if you have a crew that refuses to sail the ship, what can you do?,” asked Wickmann.
Swedish budget fashion giant Hennes & Mauritz HMb.ST said on Thursday it had reopened most of its stores in Tokyo after shutting earlier this month due to quake and radiation worries.
H&M said it had resumed shipments to Japan after temporarily diverting deliveries to nearby markets during the store closures.
Apart from ports in the north of the country, Japan’s port infrastructure was left largely unscathed by the earthquake with around 15 severely damaged. Twelve of those ports were already usable for recovery efforts and general use, the country’s transport minister said on Wednesday.
Japan is a major importer of coal for power production, iron ore and coke for steel production and grains for food and livestock. (Additional reporting by Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm and Randy Fabi; writing by Jonathan Saul and Nick Carey; editing by James Jukwey and Dave Zimmerman)
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