Tiny radioactive capsule found after search of vast swath of Australia: “Needle in a haystack”


FILE PHOTO: A handout image of Fire and Emergency Services crew searching for radioactive capsule from Rio Tinto mine
A handout image shows Department of Fire and Emergency Services crew  members searching for a radioactive capsule from a Rio Tinto mine after it disappeared on a long journey across the Australian Outback in this picture obtained on Jan. 28, 2023.

AAP / Department Of Fire And Emergency Services / Handout via REUTERS

Perth, Australia — Authorities in Western Australia on Wednesday recovered a tiny but dangerous radioactive capsule that fell off a truck while being transported along an 870-mile highway last month in what an official said was like finding a needle in a haystack.

Officials said the capsule the size of a pea was found south of Newman on the Great Northern Highway. It was detected by a search vehicle travelling at 43 miles per hour when specialist equipment picked up radiation the capsule was emitting. 

Portable search equipment was then used to locate it 6-and-a-half feet from the side of the road.

“This is an extraordinary result.  … They have quite literally found the needle in the haystack,” said Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson.

Chief Health Officer Andy Robertson said the capsule didn’t appear to have moved and no injuries had been reported.

It contains the caesium 137 ceramic source, commonly used in radiation gauges, which emits dangerous amounts of radiation, equivalent of receiving 10 X-rays in an hour. It could cause skin burns and prolonged exposure could cause cancer.

Search crews had spent six days scouring the entire length of the highway — longer than the entire length of Great Britain, the Reuters news agency points out.

Search for a radioactive capsule that was lost in transit by a contractor hired by Rio Tinto
Members of the Incident Management Team coordinated the search for a radioactive capsule that was lost in transit by a contractor hired by Rio Tinto, at the Emergency Services Complex in Cockburn, Australia, in this undated handout photo.

Department of Fire and Emergency Services / Handout via REUTERS

The capsule measures 0.31 inches by 0.24 inches — smaller than a human fingernail, Agence France-Presse notes — and people had been warned it could have unknowingly become lodged in their car’s tires.

A government investigation has been launched into how the capsule fell off the truck and a report will be provided to the health minister.

Defense officials were verifying the identification of the capsule, which has been placed in a lead container for safety. It will be stored in a secure location in Newman before being transported to a health facility in Perth.

The capsule got lost while being transported between a desert mine site and Perth on Jan. 10. The truck transporting the capsule arrived at a Perth depot on Jan. 16. Emergency services were notified of the missing capsule on Jan. 25.

The chief executive of mining giant Rio Tinto Iron Ore, Simon Trott, has apologized for the incident. 


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