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In Tokyo’s bustling Akihabara electronics district, one of the hottest products isn’t a new game console or tablet computer. It’s a Geiger counter, sold under Shanghai Ergonomics Detecting Instrument’s DP802i brand name, that costs ¥65,000 ($800). That’s double the price tag in China. And unlike units sold on the mainland, the models hawked in Tokyo come without a box, warranty, or return policy.
Because of worries about radioactive contaminants since the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown in March, Geiger counters, which measure radiation levels, have sold out even as prices have quadrupled in Tokyo. That stiff demand, says Shanghai Ergonomics Chairman Li Jinglei, has spurred a gray market of products built in makeshift Chinese factories that sometimes use faulty parts and shoddy designs or are simply fakes. Li says his Shanghai company has tested some of the new devices, also known as dosimeters, that have arrived on the market recently and found some that aren’t hermetically sealed or that stopped functioning within two or three days. He estimates a failure rate of about 70 percent. He doesn’t even know how the unboxed Geiger counters made by his company are getting to Japan, since Shanghai Ergonomics doesn’t sell them there itself, although some of its agents and distributors do.
The Geiger counter market has been relatively easy for newcomers to penetrate. “It’s by no means a high-tech product,” explains Huang Yinghong, a sales manager at Shenzhen Xintaiheng Sci-Tech, a seller of the devices. It takes only about 20,000 yuan ($3,000), 10 workers, and commonly available circuit boards and chips to start a dosimeter business, according to Huang.
Tokyo residents snapped up the devices after reactor meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. Radiation readings in the capital soared twentyfold and tap water was temporarily deemed unsafe for infants, while food products including spinach, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, tea, milk, plums, and fish were found to be contaminated. The result: Dosimeters sold out as far away as Germany. “It was absolutely a seller’s market,” Huang says, with some manufacturers moving a year’s worth of inventory in a week.
Even so, the proliferation of temporary production lines targeting Japan and South Korea led to a shortage of Geiger-Müller tubes, the gas-filled vials that detect radiation. The tube accounts for about 40 percent of a dosimeter’s material costs, Huang says. Saint-Gobain, a Valley Forge (Pa.) maker of the components, says it has expanded capacity and introduced longer working hours to meet the increase in orders.
As local Geiger counter supplies dwindled, worried Japanese turned to the Web. The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan has received multiple complaints related to dosimeters bought online, according to spokeswoman Michiko Izawa. The claims include devices that give wildly varying readings or the same readings in different locations, says Izawa. Some online stores also accepted payments without shipping the product, she says.
The demand for Geiger counters and distrust of Chinese products by some Japanese consumers prompted Masanobu Suzuki to import Estonian-made dosimeters. Two months ago, Suzuki started selling a model over the Web made by Englo in Tallinn for ¥110,000. He’s sold 15 of the devices, with another shipment expected in September.
Ayako Ishikawa, facing the option of buying a Chinese-made Geiger counter or waiting six months for models from Ukrainian and U.S. manufacturers, chose to ship soil samples from her Tokyo neighborhood’s playground and park to a laboratory in France for radiation testing. “The reputation of the Chinese Geiger counters that are still left on store shelves is not very good,” says Ishikawa, a 33-year-old housewife who heads a neighborhood group demanding more radiation testing and cleanup of contaminated areas. “The Russian and Ukrainian-made dosimeters sell out in a flash.”
The bottom line: The Fukushima accident has hiked sales of Geiger counters. Yet radiation levels never reached 1/100th of that in a single chest X-ray.