Dangerous missing radioactive capsule found in Australia

Emergency Services say they have ‘quite literally found the needle in the haystack’ after nearly a week-long search.

Two members of the fire service searching for a missing radioactive capsule in Australia. They are checking a monitor and standing behind a fire truck on a deserted road.
Teams were searching for the capsule - smaller than a coin - along a road in Western Australia [Department of Fire and Emergency Services via AP Photo]

Australian authorities say they have located a dangerous radioactive capsule that was lost along a 1,400km (870-mile) stretch of highway in the outback region of Australia, an emergency services official said.

After nearly a week-long search, Emergency Services announced in a news conference on Wednesday that the military was verifying the capsule – which was found on the side of the road just outside Newman – and would take it to a secure facility in Perth.

(Al Jazeera)

“When you consider the scope of the research area, locating this object was a monumental challenge, the search groups have quite literally found the needle in the haystack,” emergency services minister Stephen Dawson said.

The radioactive silver capsule measuring 6mm (0.24 inches) wide and 8mm (0.31 inches) long was part of a gauge used to measure the density of iron ore feed from Rio Tinto’s Gudai-Darri mine in the state’s remote Kimberley region.

The ore was being taken to a facility in the suburbs of Perth, a distance longer than the length of Britain. Authorities suspect vibrations on the bumpy road loosened screws and a bolt on the gauge letting the capsule fall out.

a small round and silver capsule containing radioactive Caesium-137 that went missing in transportation between a mine site north of Newman and the north-eastern parts of Perth.
The capsule is smaller than an Australian 10-cent coin [AAP Image/Department Of Fire And Emergency Services/Reuters]

The gauge was picked up from the mine site on January 12 and was unpacked for inspection on January 25, when the loss of the capsule was discovered.

Officials from Western Australia’s emergency response department, defence authorities, radiation specialists and others have since been combing the stretch of highway for the tiny capsule.

Officials said it contained Caesium-137, an isotope that emits radiation equal to 10 X-rays per hour, but it was unlikely there would be contamination in the area.

People had been told to stay at least five metres (16.5 feet) away from the capsule if they spotted it as exposure could cause radiation burns or radiation sickness, though driving past it is believed to be relatively low risk, akin to taking an X-ray.

Police had looked into laying charges over the lost capsule but decided there was no case to answer.

“We’ve been coming at it from an investigation perspective to see if there were criminal actions involved. We have pretty much determined that’s not the case,” Commissioner Col Blanch told reporters on Tuesday.

Mining giant Rio Tinto apologised in a statement on Monday, saying it was taking the incident “very seriously”.

“We recognise this is clearly very concerning and are sorry for the alarm it has caused in the Western Australian community,” Simon Trott, Rio Tinto’s iron ore division chief, said.

Australian authorities were considering toughening up laws on the mishandling of radioactive material, which critics say are inappropriate.

The penalty for failing to safely handle radioactive substances is 1,000 ($707) Australian dollars and 50 Australian dollars ($35) for each day the offence continues, according to state legislation from 1975.

“The current fine system is unacceptably low,” state health minister Amber-Jade Sanderson told the news conference. “We are looking at how we can increase that.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies