Mythbuster: Can cars imported from Japan be radioactive?

Consumer Reports News: March 18, 2011 02:21 PM

As Japan struggles to emerge from the recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami, and faces further potential disaster from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex, the auto industry is wrestling with how to cope with the enormous logistic challenges these tragedies have created. Japanese automakers and their suppliers have suspended production, and it may be months before things are fully back up to speed.  As the world waits to see what happens next, from when rebuilding the ravaged nation can begin to how its recovery could impact markets, some consumers have pondered, are there risks from cars imported from Japan being radioactive?

In a word, no. 

The vast majority of factories are located well outside the evacuation range surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi complex. Automakers report they are taking precautions to ensure their factories, components, and staff are protected. Likewise, they will ensure that vehicles meet safe levels for radiation before distributing.

"Toyota will take any necessary steps to ensure the cars we deliver to customers are safe in every way," said Javier Moreno of Toyota Communications. He stated that the majority of Toyota Motor Corporation's operations in Japan are located about 240 miles southwest of the nuclear power plant and no unusual radiation activity has been detected. 

We spoke with several companies, all of which have been working to protect their workers and consumers, while rebuilding their businesses. The sentiments expressed by the automakers were similar, though clearly some were harder hit than others.

"We are evaluating the situation very carefully, of course, safety is our number one concern," said Jeffrey Smith of Honda Corporate affairs. He added that the nearest port to the impacted area that Honda uses is about 125 miles away. Honda had 17 employees injured in the Tochigi area during the earthquake, plus an associate killed at an R&D facility.

Beyond the safety measures in place in Japan, consumers are further protected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an agency focused on preventing terrorists and weapons from entering the United States. Among its tools, the CBP uses sensitive, large-scale Radiation Portal Monitors (RPM) to scan all maritime cargo and mail arriving from Japan. In addition, agents use a wide range of technologies, including radiation isotope identifiers, to scan people, vehicles, and cargo containers. The radiation isotope identifiers are hand-held devices that can detect gamma and neutron emissions from radioactive sources, including nuclear, medical, and industrial isotopes. With hundreds of such devices in the field, any car or other product carrying an unsafe level of radioactivity would be discovered and halted at the more than 140 Border Patrol stations and more than 150 ports of entry.

As one would expect, the CBP tells us that they are monitoring developments in Japan carefully and specifically assessing the potential for radiological contamination associated with the ongoing impact of the earthquake and tsunami to Japan's nuclear facilities.

There are many valid concerns surrounding the crisis in Japan, including the human toll, cultural impact, and market forces, but radioactive consumer goods is not one of them.

Learn what you can do to aid Japan (via CNN), and donate to the American Red Cross.

--Jim Travers and Jeff Bartlett


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