Tiny Radioactive Capsule Lost in Australian Outback Found
A government official said search crews “found the needle in the haystack” when they located the capsule belonging to Rio Tinto along an 870-mile stretch of road.
The round, silver capsule measures about 6 mm (0.2 inches) in diameter and 8 mm (0.3 inches) long and contains a small amount of cesium-137, a radioactive isotope of the element cesium (Cs).
It was discovered to be missing on Jan. 25.
A team of personnel from Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFAS) and Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) found the capsule Wednesday around 11:30 a.m. local time using specialized radiation equipment, Western Australia authorities said.
“This is an extraordinary result by Western Australians and Australians, and it is a great result for Western Australia,” Stephen Dawson, Western Australia’s minister for emergency services, said in a press conference livestreamed via Facebook.
“When you consider the scope of the search area, locating the subject was a monumental challenge. The search groups have quite literally found the needle in the haystack.”
He continued: “It once again highlights the extraordinary capabilities of our emergency services in Western Australia and of course they have been challenged over the past few weeks with a variety of fires and floods.”
Searchers located the capsule on the northbound side of the highway just south of the town of Newman, which is about 68 miles southeast of the mine.
Authorities said Wednesday it was transported in a lead container to Newman, where it was stored overnight before being taken to a WA Health facility in Perth on Thursday.
The capsule was part of an industrial gauge being used to measure iron ore feed in the crushing circuit of the fixed plant at the Gudai-Darri iron ore mine.
A contractor Rio Tinto hires to transport radioactive materials picked up the gauge from the mine on Jan. 12.
Though the gauge reached the storage facility on Jan. 16, it wasn’t until Jan. 25 that the contractor discovered the capsule was missing and informed Rio Tinto.
The discovery sparked an intense week-long search along the desolate 870-mile stretch of highway between Gudai-Darri and Perth.
Rio Tinto publicly apologized for the alarm the missing capsule caused the community and aided Western Australia’s DFAS and radiation specialists in the search.
On Wednesday, Simon Trott, the head of the mining company’s iron ore division, apologized again for the incident and vowed a “full and thorough investigation” into how it happened and to assess the company’s use of contractors to transport radioactive materials.
“While the recovery of the capsule is a great testament to the skill and tenacity of the search team, the fact is, it should never have been lost in the first place,” he said. “I’d like to apologize to the wider community of Western Australia for the concern it has generated.
“This sort of incident is extremely rare in our industry, which is why we need to investigate it thoroughly and learn what we can to ensure it doesn’t happen again. As part of our investigation, we will be assessing whether our processes and protocols, including the use of specialist contractors to package and transport radioactive materials, are appropriate.”
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