The capsule is tiny – but dangerous. The region’s health officer, Andrew Robertson, posted this image on Twitter.
The tiny, dangerous capsule had apparently fallen off a truck while being transported from a mine north of the mining town of Newman to a depot near the metropolis of Perth. How and where exactly did that happen on the approximately 1400-kilometer route? Completely unclear. And: It apparently happened in the second week of January – but according to information from the TV broadcaster ABC, the missing capsule was only noticed on January 25 when the truck was unloaded.
The loss of the capsule containing the highly radioactive caesium-137, measuring just six by eight millimetres, is extremely worrying given the very dangerous material, said Roger Cook, Deputy Prime Minister of Western Australia. The region’s health officer, Andrew Robertson, issued an urgent warning over the weekend. Anyone who discovers something that looks like a tiny capsule should keep a distance of at least five meters. The Western Australia Department of Health informed the public about the incident late on Friday (local time).
Teams search the route
Radioactive capsules are used in mining. In the Newman region, where transport began, iron ore is mainly mined. The tiny radioactive capsule was part of a radiation meter commonly used to measure radioactivity in oil and gas processing plants, ABC wrote.
Fire and rescue teams searched 36 kilometers of the busy freight route with portable radiation and metal detectors, Australian news agency AAP reported on Sunday. Authorities also used the truck’s GPS data to pinpoint the driver’s exact route and see where he stopped.
Dangerous for humans
The capsule emits “a fair amount of radiation,” Robertson said. Within a radius of one meter, this is about as high as ten X-rays within an hour – or the amount of natural radiation that a person is exposed to over a whole year. “It emits both beta and gamma rays. If you get close to her, you can suffer skin damage, including skin burns,” Robertson said. He published a photo on Twitter showing that such a radioactive capsule is significantly smaller than a ten cent coin.
The fire brigade, the Western Australia police, the Ministry of Health and experts participated in the search. Vehicle owners traveling on the Great Northern Highway were asked to check their tires, according to broadcaster ABC. The capsule may have gotten stuck there and has already reached other parts of the country. Authorities warned that nobody could guarantee that she would be found.
Emergency services found their search for information from AAP hampered by a lack of equipment. Commonwealth states and other countries have been asked to provide suitable equipment for the search. The mining company Rio Tinto, which operates the mine, meanwhile said it had hired a company specializing in radioactive transport to “securely” pack and transport the capsule. Cook said he could not decide whether Rio Tinto would be held accountable for the incident.
Meanwhile, it’s not even clear when exactly the tiny one went missing – it’s said to have fallen off a truck sometime between January 10th and 16th. It was initially unclear why the capsule was not secured better. (SDA)