In Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district, a Geiger counter sold under the brand name of Shanghai Ergonomics Detecting Instrument Co.’s DP802i costs ¥65,000.
For that price, twice the cost in China, it comes without a box, warranty or return policy.
Shanghai Ergonomics doesn’t know how its device got onto the shelves at Akihabara as the company doesn’t sell its Geiger counters directly overseas and offers a one-year warranty for models sold in China, Chairman Li Jinglei said.
Geiger counters, also known as dosimeters, have sold out and prices quadrupled in Tokyo because of worries about radiation fallout since the Fukushima crisis started in March. The demand spurred a gray market of “illegal” products that use faulty parts and shoddy designs or are fake, Li said. He declined to say how much it costs Shanghai Ergonomics to make the dosimeters.
Some of the devices on the Chinese market tested by the Shanghai-based company weren’t hermetically sealed or stopped functioning within two or three days, Li said. He estimated a failure rate of about 70 percent for those models.
“It’s by no means a high-tech product,” said Huang Yinghong, a sales manager at Shenzhen Xintaiheng Sci-tech Co., a Shenzhen-based seller of the devices. It takes about 20,000 yuan (¥245,000), 10 workers and commonly available circuit boards and chips to enter the Geiger counter business, Huang said.
Tokyo residents snapped up the devices after radiation readings in the capital soared more than 20-fold and tap water was temporarily deemed unsafe for infants in March.
Dosimeters sold out as far away as Germany after reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant made the nuclear accident the worst since Chernobyl.
“It was a wave of panic buying,” Huang said. “It was absolutely a seller’s market,” with some manufacturers selling out a year’s worth of inventory in a week through March and April, he said. His shop has since restocked supplies, he said.
The Fukushima plant had three reactor meltdowns after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out power and backup generators. Radiation leaks displaced 160,000 people and contaminated products including spinach, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, tea, milk, plums and fish with cesium and iodine as far as 360 km from the station.
The proliferation of temporary production lines targeting Japan and South Korea led to a shortage of Geiger-Muller tubes, a gas-filled vial that detects radiation, Huang said. The tube accounts for about 40 percent of the materials cost, he said.
SparkFun Electronics, an online marketplace for electronics enthusiasts, sells Geiger-Muller tubes for $94 (¥7,439). A bulk order of 100 tubes fetches $75 (¥5,935) per unit, according to the site.
Saint-Gobain Corp., a Pennsylvania-based maker of the components, has expanded capacity, moved employees and introduced longer working hours to meet the increase in orders, said spokeswoman Dina Silver Pokedoff.
The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan has received multiple complaints related to dosimeters bought online, according to spokeswoman Michiko Izawa, who declined to name companies or the country of origin of the dosimeters.
The claims include devices that give wildly varying readings or the same readings in different locations, said Izawa. Some online stores accepted payments without shipping the product, she said.
The demand for Geiger counters and distrust of Chinese products by Japanese consumers prompted Masanobu Suzuki, a 53-year-old employee of a defense contractor in Fukui Prefecture, to import Estonian-made dosimeters.
Suzuki started selling a model made by Tallinn-based Englo LLC on his website two months ago for ¥110,000. He sold 15 of the devices and said the next shipment is expected in the second half of September.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has handed out 1,700 dosimeters made by Fuji Electric Co. to kindergartens, elementary and junior high schools since April, according to ministry spokesman Hirotaku Oku.
Readings in Tokyo reached 0.809 microsievert an hour on March 15, compared with 0.0338 microsievert before the quake, the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Public Health said. The highest level was still below a hundredth of the radiation dose from a single chest X-ray.
The metropolitan government in March warned residents to avoid giving tap water to infants after radioactive iodine was found in the city’s supply at levels twice the allowable limit for infants.
The reading dropped to within safe levels the next day.
Earlier this month, radioactive cesium-137 was found in Tokyo’s tap water for the first time since April. The level was below the safety limit set by the government.
Ayako Ishikawa, faced with 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,” said 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.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.