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Radioactive Used Cars From Japan – One More Problem The World Needs To Contend With

By Theodora Filis

Following the tsunami and earthquake that struck Japan in March, automobile manufactures announced they would begin testing all new vehicles for the presence of radioactive material before leaving the plant.

The national radiation limit in Japan for cars being exported for sale to other countries is 0.3 microsieverts an hour.

Japanese car dealers who export used vehicles, to Russia and Southeast Asia, are now having their shipments refused because of high radiation levels. Customs authorities in Russia have turned away hundreds of vehicles from used car dealers in Japan, and is now joined by Chile and Australia – both received shipments of automobiles contaminated with low levels of radiation.

As testing for radiation gets tougher, car dealers in Japan are left with two choices, destroy the vehicle as the government has required, or obtain new documentation and unload the automobile to an unsuspecting Japanese buyer. Japanese automakers are taking steps to reassure US consumers that they are not concerned about radiation risk on vehicles exported to the there.

Mike Michels, vice president of communications for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., said "The majority of our operations are in Aichi prefecture, which is far from the earthquake zone and contamination sources. Vehicles are plastic-wrapped on ships ("wrapguard") and washed at our processing facilities before shipping to dealers. This is normal procedure. Also, Customs and Homeland Security already routinely monitor shipments for radiation as part of anti-terrorism procedures. Whatever else may be needed is unclear, but we are committed to ensuring that vehicles delivered to customers are safe in every way."

Nissan Americas vice president of corporate communications, David Reuter, said "We are monitoring the situation closely and will take all necessary actions to ensure safety. Nissan's plants and ports are not in the zone where any potential radioactive fallout could cause a problem."

Nissan's Iwaki powertrain plant, however, is located about 30 miles from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that has been at the center of the crisis in Japan.

Honda also took steps to reassure US consumers about any radiation risk in exported vehicles. "Regarding radiation, our assembly plants aren't located anywhere near the damaged reactors," said Edward K. Miller, Honda North America senior manager for news media and industry relations. Miller added, that in 2010, 87 percent of the vehicles Honda sold in the US were built domestically. It imports 13 percent of finished vehicles.

Nissan has an assembly plant in Tochigi and Honda operates an engine components plant in Tochigi, less than 100 miles from the damaged nuclear reactors in Fukushima.

Mazda North America did not comment on the issue.

Fears of radioactive fallout prompted several air carriers to cancel flights to Narita International Airport, which services Tokyo. Lufthansa, KLM and Air China canceled flights after a small spike in radiation levels were detected in Tokyo following the reactor fire at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

The US government had not addressed any possible contamination issue in exported goods from Japan at this point.

However, in a 2010 guidebook on response to nuclear contamination published jointly by such agencies as the US Department of Homeland Security, US Department of Defense, the EPA and the US Department of Transportation urges "fire hosing" of contaminated objects with "smooth impermeable surfaces" to counteract contamination.

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