Geiger counters have sold out and prices quadrupled in Tokyo because of worries about radiation fallout since the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown in March. The demand has spurred a gray market of "illegal" products that use faulty parts and shoddy designs or are fake.

Share story

TOKYO — In the Akihabara electronics district, a Geiger counter sold under the Shanghai Ergonomics Detecting Instrument Co.’s DP802i brand name costs $800. 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 in a telephone interview.

Geiger counters, also known as dosimeters, have sold out and prices quadrupled in Tokyo because of worries about radiation fallout since the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown in March. The demand has 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 $3,000, 10 workers and commonly available circuit boards and chips to enter the Geiger-counter business, according to Huang.

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. Dosimeters sold out as far away as Germany after reactor meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi plant made the nuclear accident the worst since Chernobyl.

“It was a wave of panic buying,” Huang said. “It was absolutely a sellers’ 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, about 137 miles north of Tokyo, 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 223 miles 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 market for electronics enthusiasts, sells Geiger-Muller tubes for $94. A bulk order of 100 tubes fetches $75 per unit, according to the Boulder, Colo.-based site.

Saint-Gobain Corp., a Valley Forge, Pa.-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 the agency’s 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 in central Japan, to import Estonian-made dosimeters.

Suzuki started selling a model made by Tallinn-based Englo on his website two months ago for $1,390. He sold 15 of the devices and said the next shipment is expected in the second half of September.

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.”

This report includes information from Yasumasa Song in Tokyo and Emma Dong in Beijing.