Missing radioactive capsule found in Western Australia after week-long search
Officials have discovered a tiny but highly radioactive capsule that fell off a truck as it drove along an 870-mile highway through Western Australia last month.
A capsule 6 mm in diameter and 8 mm long was found south of the mining town of Newman on the Great Northern Highway. It was discovered by a search engine when special equipment detected the radiation emanating from the capsule. He was then about six feet from the side of the road.
“This is an extraordinary result… they literally found a needle in a haystack,” said emergency response minister Stephen Dawson.
Western Australia’s state emergency services said the capsule “no longer poses a risk to the public.”
“Radioactive material in parts of the Pilbara, Midwest Gascoigne, Goldfields Midlands and Perth metropolitan regions is now contained and under control as the substance has been located and defused,” the emergency services said in a statement.
The capsule contained caesium-137, which is commonly used in radiation sensors and emits a dangerous amount of radiation equivalent to receiving 10 x-rays per hour.
Earlier this month, it was lost in transit at some point on a stretch of road longer than the length of the UK, prompting officials to issue a wide-ranging radiation warning for much of Western Australia.
Officials said the capsule was packed on January 10 and sent to Perth for repairs, before being shipped by ground on January 12.
The tiny capsule can cause skin burns, and prolonged exposure can cause cancer, officials said. Chief Medical Officer Andy Robertson said the capsule did not appear to be moving and no injuries were reported.
When the package was opened on January 25, after arriving in Perth and stored in a secure radiation storage facility for almost 10 days, the radiation sensor was broken, one of the four mounting bolts, the capsule and all screws on the pressure gauge were missing.
The capsule was located within a day after the Australian Nuclear Safety Agency joined the search with specialized vehicle and portable detection equipment. Search teams spent six days combing the entire road.
Authorities also dispatched radiation service specialists from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization to conduct a search operation on Tuesday, along with detection and imaging equipment.
A government investigation into how the capsule fell off the truck has been launched and a report will be provided to the Minister of Health.
Defense Department officials checked the identification of the capsule, which was placed in a lead container for security purposes. It will be stored in a secure location in Newman before being transported to a medical facility in Perth.
Mining corporation Rio Tinto, responsible for transporting the capsule, apologized over the weekend “for the alarm” and said it “takes this incident very seriously.”
Rio Tinto Iron Ore CEO Simon Trott expressed his gratitude for the find.
“A pretty incredible recovery considering the distances and also the remoteness of the area, and I think it really speaks to the tenacity of all those involved in the search,” Trott said. “Just the fact that this device should never have been lost. We regret this has happened and we regret the concern this has caused in the Western Australian community.”
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the A$1,000 (£574) fine was an inadequate maximum penalty for mishandling radioactive materials.
“It should not have been lost, this is the first. And secondly, yes, of course, this figure is ridiculously low,” Albanese said.
Mr Dawson said the state government is reviewing sanctions under the Radiation Safety Act.
The Associated Press contributed to this report