A tiny radioactive capsule has been lost in Australia

PERTH, Australia (AP) — Authorities in Western Australia were searching for a tiny but life-threatening radioactive capsule that got lost while being trucked from a mine to a depot in the city of Perth, it said. officials on Saturday.

Emergency services said they were hampered by a lack of equipment and called on the Commonwealth and other states to provide assistance.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services deployed teams equipped with portable radiation detection devices and metal detectors to 36 kilometers (22 miles) of a busy freight road to search for the unit of 8 millimeters by 6 millimeters (0.31 inches by 0.24 inches).

He is believed to have fallen from the back of a lorry on a 1,400 kilometer (870 mile) journey from the Rio Tinto mine in Newman to the Perth suburb of Malaga.

“What we’re not doing is trying to find a very small device in sight,” Superintendent Darryl Ray said, adding that they were focusing on populated areas north of Perth and strategic sites along the Great Northern Highway.

“We use the radiation detectors to locate the gamma rays,” he said.

Authorities were also using GPS data from the truck to determine the exact route the driver took and where he stopped after leaving the mine on or around January 10.

It is feared that the solid capsule has already become lodged in the tire of another vehicle and is potentially hundreds of kilometers (miles) from the search area.

It is believed that a screw came loose inside a large leaded gauge and the unit fell through a hole.

Rio Tinto said it had hired a radioactive materials handling expert to pack the capsule and transport it “safely” to the depot and was only informed of its disappearance on Wednesday.

Chief Health Officer Andrew Robertson defended the Western Australian government’s decision to wait two days to notify the public on Friday, saying the mine and depot needed to be searched and excluded, and the route confirmed.

He said the capsule was packaged in accordance with transport and radiation protection regulations inside a box bolted to a pallet.

“We believe the vibrations from the truck may have impacted the integrity of the gauge, that it collapsed and the source came out of it,” he said. “It’s unusual for a gauge to come off like this.”

An investigation will focus on the handling of the gauge and capsule at the mine site, the transport route used and the procedures at the Perth depot following its arrival on January 16.

Police have determined the incident was an accident and no criminal charges are likely.

Authorities ruled out the theft at the depot before the box opened on Wednesday.

The small silver cylinder is a ceramic source of 19 becquerels of cesium-137 commonly used in radiation gauges.

Robertson previously said the unit emits the equivalent of 10 X-rays in an hour and members of the public should stay at least 5 meters (16 feet) away. Contact can lead to skin damage, burns and radiation illness, including effects on the immune and gastrointestinal systems.

Long-term exposure could also cause cancer, however, experts say the capsule cannot be weaponized.

“Our concern is that someone picks it up, not knowing what it is, thinks it’s something interesting (and) keeps it,” Robertson said.


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