AND NOW: Dangerously Radioactive Second-Hand Cars Haunting Japan

Radioactive second-hand cars dog Japan (The Australian/The Times, Oct. 26, 2011):

RUSTING hulks disguised with new paint, and mileage clocks reset – the wiles of the second-hand car dealer are well known.

However, motorists in Japan are facing an unfamiliar peril. They are being offered used cars with low mileage, well-maintained engines and sound bodywork. The only flaw is that they are dangerously radioactive.

In the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, used-car dealerships have found themselves stuck with vehicles that have absorbed high levels of radiation from the meltdown of the reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Barred from exporting the vehicles, they have resorted to re-registering them to disguise their origin, and selling them to customers who have no idea of the risk to which they are being exposed.

One van in particular, which has become notorious, is so radioactive that sitting inside it for two hours a day will expose the occupant to more than the government’s recommended maximum dose over the course of a year.

Its purchaser knows none of this because the auction house that sold it refuses to disclose his or her name and address.

“It is just the tip of the iceberg,” one car dealer told the Asahi newspaper. “If high radiation is detected, decontamination is too difficult. This is why such vehicles are auctioned within Japan.”

Compared with many countries, Japan’s domestic used-car market is small, but many vehicles are exported, especially to Russia and other parts of Asia.

Since the nuclear disaster, which was caused by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, Japanese ports have been carrying out strict radiation checks. In August, the limit was made more stringent, so that now vehicles emitting radiation higher than 0.3 microsieverts an hour cannot be exported.

For some dealers, these tests are the first time they learn that cars they have acquired are radioactive. Rather than write off the loss, some re-register the affected vehicles so that they no longer carry the plates of Fukushima or Iwaki, another town close to the stricken nuclear plant.

A reporter for the Asahi tracked down the dealer who first bought the notoriously radioactive van for 1.43 million yen ($A18,100) at a wholesale auction, only to discover that it emitted radiation at a level of 110 microsieverts an hour.

He told the newspaper: “I decontaminated repeatedly after the test, and retested the filter of the air conditioner, the wipers and tyres, replacing them thoroughly, but the radiation level dropped only to 30 microsieverts per hour. I decided to sell the vehicle in Japan because I couldn’t afford to lose the money.”

The vehicle eventually sold at auction in Kobe, 370 miles from Fukushima, for 1.21 million yen.

According to harbour authorities, 660 cars were barred from export last month because they exceeded radiation limits, about one per cent of those tested. No one knows how many of these have been re-registered and submitted once again to the domestic market.

People from the area close to the nuclear plant report that simply driving around in a car with Fukushima plates draws icy stares in other parts of Japan, and car dealerships in the area have lost much of their business.

One dealer told the Sankei newspaper that his sales had fallen by 40 per cent.


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