Radioactive capsule missing: WA officials admit it took weeks before anyone realized it was lost | Western Australia

Western Australian authorities are scrambling to find a missing radioactive capsule that is a fraction of the size of a 10c coin, conceding it was only found missing more than two weeks after leaving a Rio Tinto mine site .

The 8mm by 6mm capsule is a ceramic source of 19 becquerels of cesium-137, commonly used in radiation gauges, and was believed to be contained in a secure device that had been ‘damaged’ on a truck traveling from the site mining north of Newman in the Pilbara to a depot in Perth.

Authorities are now searching along the 1,400km stretch of the Great Northern Highway for the capsule, which they say can cause skin burns, radiation sickness and cancer.

At a press conference on Saturday, Darryl Ray, acting superintendent of Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services, said authorities were largely searching for the capsule at “strategic sites”.

He said an incident management team comprising the Ministry of Health and the police had been formed.

“We continued searches at strategic sites along the route taken by the vehicle, focusing on sites close to densely populated areas in metropolitan suburbs,” he said. “The search involves the use of survey meters to detect radiation levels, which will help us locate the small device.

“What we don’t do is try to find a very small device on sight. We use the radiation detectors to locate the gamma rays, using the counters, which will then help us locate the small device.

“We secured GPS data from the trucking company to determine the exact route and stops the vehicle took during its journey.

“We will continue to use specialist equipment to help us search for the remaining known locations…in particular, the Great Northern Highway between Perth and Newman.”

WA health officer Andrew Robertson said screws were missing in the protective gauge holding the capsule when it was discovered missing.

“These gauges are designed to be rugged and for use in industrial environments where they may be exposed to weather and vibration, so it’s unusual for a gauge to come apart like this,” Robertson said.

“We are investigating all the circumstances from when it was initially transported from the mine site, the entire transport route, and then its handling on arrival in Perth.”

Robertson urged anyone who finds the capsule not to handle it.

“People could end up developing skin redness and possibly skin burns from the beta radiation,” he said. “If stored long enough and exposed long enough, they could also have acute effects, including impacts on their immune system and gastrointestinal system.”

Robertson said the capsule was “most dangerous if handled or close to the body.”

“If you are more than five meters from the source, certainly if you are more than 20 meters from the source, it will pose no danger to you,” he said. “If it’s closer than that, and we strongly advise people against picking it up, definitely don’t put it in your pocket or put it in your car, don’t put it on your sideboard, it’ll just keep shining.

“While you don’t get any immediate health effects, they can happen relatively quickly over a short period of time if it’s close to the body.

“If you see it [or] identify it, move away from the source, contact the 13DFES and report it. We will send someone on site to examine the source and we will use our radiation counters to determine if it is the source.

Robertson said officials do not know the date the capsule fell from the truck.

Ray said the capsule was placed on the pallet on January 10 at the mine site, transited and arrived at the radiotherapy services company in Malaga on January 16.

“It wasn’t until the late morning of the 25th that they opened it to reveal that the device had collapsed, had been damaged in transit and the actual capsule had been discovered missing, date at which the authorities were first informed.”

Ray said police determined the capsule was not taken as part of a foul play.

Robertson said specialist equipment had been requested from Commonwealth agencies, including the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency.

“What we’re looking for is mobile radiation detection equipment that we can put in a car and then drive around at a reasonable speed,” he said.

“But, you know, there are a number of variables here: he could have been thrown further into the bush, he could have been picked up and carried in a clincher wheel in another direction. We have to look at all those options. .

Mining giant Rio Tinto confirmed earlier on Saturday that the capsule came from one of its mining sites.

The company said it hired a radioactive materials handling expert to “pack the capsule and transport it safely” to the repository.

“Rio Tinto was notified of the missing capsule by a contractor on January 25,” a spokesperson said. “The contractor, an expert in handling radioactive materials, was hired by Rio Tinto to handle and package the capsule and transport it safely offsite.

“Safety is our top priority, and we are working with and supporting the Radiological Council, the contractors involved, as well as the emergency services to help with the research.”


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