Policies & Issues

Rio Tinto Issues Apology After Radioactive Capsule Goes Missing

Policies & IssuesJan 31, 2023

Rio Tinto Issues Apology After Radioactive Capsule Goes Missing

The tiny capsule, which is believed to have fallen out of a truck, was lost somewhere along an 870-mile stretch of desert road.

This file photos shows Rio Tinto employees in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, where the company mines for iron ore. On Monday, Rio Tinto apologized after a radioactive capsule being transported from the Gudai-Darri iron ore mine was lost during transport. (Image courtesy of Rio Tinto)
Melbourne, Australia—Rio Tinto Group is making another public apology, this time over a tiny radioactive capsule lost in a vast expanse of desert in Western Australia.
The Melbourne, Australia-based mining company issued the statement of apology Monday, with Rio Tinto Iron Ore CEO Simon Trott stating, “We are taking this incident very seriously. We recognize this is clearly very concerning and are sorry for the alarm it has caused in the Western Australian community.”
The round, silver capsule is tiny—about 6 mm (0.2 inches) in diameter and 8 mm (0.3 inches) long—and was part of a gauge used to measure the density of iron ore feed in the crushing circuit of the fixed plant at the Gudai-Darri iron ore mine, the company said.
The capsule contains a small amount of cesium-137, a radioactive isotope of the element cesium (Cs).Other cesium isotopes include barium and mercury. 
Rio Tinto said the gauge was picked up from the mining site on Jan. 12 and loaded onto the truck of a third-party company it uses to transport hazardous materials. 
It was then transported about 870 miles south to a suburb of Perth, Australia, where the third-party company has a storage facility for radioactive materials. It arrived on Jan. 16. 
The contractor informed Rio Tinto of the missing capsule on Jan. 25, after the gauge was found “broken apart with one of the four mounting bolts missing and the source itself and all screws on the gauge also missing,” the government of Western Australia said. 
It’s believed the gauge broke during transport and the radioactive capsule fell out of a gap in the truck. 
The misplaced miniscule capsule has caused Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) to issue a hazmat warning stretching from remote regions in the north of the state to Perth.

“Exposure to this substance could cause radiation burns or radiation sickness … Risk to the general community is relatively low, however it is important to be aware of the risks and what to do if you see the capsule,” the warning notes.
DFES said anyone who spots it is advised to stay at least 5 meters (about 16 feet) away—don’t try to pick it up or put it in a car and take it anywhere—and call the authorities. 
DFES and radiation specialists are driving north and south along the Great Northern Highway looking for the capsule. 
 Related stories will be right here … 
Rio Tinto’s Trott said the company is aiding in the search while also trying to figure out how the capsule got lost. 
“As well as fully supporting the relevant authorities, we have launched our own investigation to understand how the capsule was lost in transit. As part of this investigation, we are working closely with the contractor to better understand what went wrong in this instance,” he said. 
“We have offered our full and ongoing support to authorities in the search for the missing device. We have completed radiological surveys of all areas on site where the device had been, and surveyed roads within the mine site as well as the access road leading away from the Gudai-Darri mine site.”
Rio Tinto’s statement regarding the misplaced radioactive capsule comes just a few years after its executive director and chief executive along with other top officials resigned after the mining company blew up ancient caves sacred to two Australian Aboriginal groups—the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people—in Western Australia’s Juukan Gorge in order to get to the iron ore underneath.

The resignations took place in September 2020, with Rio Tinto issuing a statement at the time acknowledging what happened to the culturally and historically significant site in the Juukan Gorge was “wrong.” 
The following February, the mining company apologized to Australian aboriginals again after failing to tell them the iron ore division was under new leadership.

Editor's note: This story was corrected post-publication to clarify that it is the third-party contractor that has a radioactive materials storage facility outside of Perth, not Rio Tinto, and that it was the contractor that discovered the missing capsule, not Rio Tinto.

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