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Demand for personal Geiger counters soars in Japan

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - With a nuclear plant just 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo still leaking radiation, demand for personal Geiger counters has skyrocketed in the Japanese capital and manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the demand.

An expert uses a Geiger counter as he screens a person for possible radiation before entering an evacuation centre for those coming from the zone around the nuclear power plant that has been crippled after an earthquake and tsunami, in Fukushima, northern Japan April 4, 2011. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/Files

Engineers are battling to plug radiation leaks and bring the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant under control more than two months after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and deadly tsunami that devastated a swathe of Japan’s coastline.

With many people unsure of who to trust for their information, some are buying Geiger counters to check for themselves.

In Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics mecca, many stores have sold out and are unable to keep up with demand for the devices.

“Nobody even looked at or even knew the name (of the Geiger counter), but ever since the earthquake struck people have become very interested,” said Makoto Ogasawara, sales manager at electronics store Akibaoo.

“We are selling 100 times more.”

While progress is slowly being made to bring the disaster under control, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) confirmed on Tuesday that the fuel rods at three reactors at the plant had melted down.

Radioactive traces exceeding national safety standards have been found in various foods grown in areas around the plant as well as in tap water in places as far away as Tokyo, keeping residents on edge.

“I don’t think that the information you got are the real information in Japan. That’s the problem,” said restaurant chef Bruno Menard, noting that a French company he had checked with that morning for radiation levels had said levels were very high around Fukushima.

“Especially when it’s raining we have to be concerned.”

The sudden boom in demand has left many empty-handed.

“I think I’ll buy one if worst comes to worst, but I heard that it’s all sold out,” 58-year-old Sugehiro Ueyoshi said.

At Fuji Electric, one of Japan’s Geiger counter manufacturers, factory workers have been operating at full shift.

“We are producing four to five times more of the Geiger counter (than usual),” said general manager Toshiaki Fujimoto.

Most of the Geiger counters at that factory are hand-made, which takes roughly 3 to 4 months. It makes about a dozen different types, producing about 2,000 per type each month.

Fujimoto said his company has also benefited from efforts to make the devices less complex so anybody can use them.

“Of course, there was the earthquake, but in the past 2-3 years, we have been trying to produce Geiger counters that are easier to operate,” he added.

But most of the Geiger counters made at the factory will still be used by those working inside nuclear power plants, prompting the company to carry out rigorous checks to make sure the devices are working correctly.

“We really care about credibility,” Fujimoto said.

Editing by Elaine Lies