After a difficult search that was like looking for a needle in a haystack, authorities in Australia located a missing radioactive capsule by the side of a desolate roadway.
Six days after the capsule carrying highly radioactive Caesium-137 was missing from a cargo ship from a Rio Tinto mining facility in northern Western Australia to the city of Perth, emergency authorities made the discovery public on Wednesday afternoon.
State Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson said during a news conference on Wednesday, “Locating this object was a massive challenge — the search crews have quite literally discovered the needle in the haystack.”
Warnings were issued to the public not to approach the capsule, as it might cause significant burns on contact with skin, and a large search of the roadway was launched when the capsule vanished.
The capsule, which is around 8 mm in height and 6 mm in diameter, is thought to have fallen off the back of a truck while being hauled 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) from the mine along the Great Northern Highway.
Rio Tinto, who had been using the device in a gauge at its Gudai-Darri iron ore mine, stated that it routinely transported and stored dangerous commodities as part of its business and used skilled contractors to handle radioactive materials.
At 11:13 a.m. local time on Wednesday, personnel using radiation detection equipment found the missing capsule two meters off the road south of the small village of Newman.
Authorities reported setting up a 20-meter exclusion zone around the capsule and said it would be moved to a lead container and transported to a Newman security facility. And on Thursday, it would begin its journey south once more, this time to a health department facility in Perth.
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When did this start to Occur and Why?
About 2 million people live in the northeastern suburbs of Perth and on Friday, the Department of Emergency Services WA (DFES) sounded the alarm, warning them of a radioactive spill in the state. The capsule was reportedly sealed in a package on January 10 and removed from Rio Tinto’s Gudai-Darri mine site on January 12 by a contractor.
The vehicle left on January 12 drove for four days and arrived in Perth on January 16 but it wasn’t unloaded for inspection until January 25 when it was discovered the capsule was gone.
Experts were surprised by the event because they noted that radioactive elements like Caesium-137 are extremely controlled and have very specific processes for transit, storage and disposal.
According to Radiation Services WA, radioactive materials are routinely transported across the state of Western Australia with no incidents. It released a statement saying it had nothing to do with the missing capsule and that “in this circumstance, there seems to be a failure of the control mechanisms generally undertaken.”
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