Oops: Hunt is on for lost radioactive capsule in the Outback

Truck carrying road train through Australian Outback at sunset (radioactive)
Image: Shutterstock

Authorities have deployed nuclear safety personnel and specialised detection equipment to search for a tiny radioactive capsule missing somewhere in the Outback, Reuters reported.

The radioactive capsule is believed to have fallen from a truck that made a 1,400km journey in Western Australia and its loss has triggered a radiation alert for large parts of the vast state.

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The Department of Fire and Emergency Services said Monday that it would take five days to retrace the road train’s route. On Tuesday, it said that 660km had been searched so far.

The hunt for the radioactive capsule involves a slew of government agencies including the Department of Defence, the police and now the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency and the Australian Nuclear and Science Technology Organisation.

The capsule was part of a gauge used to measure the density of iron ore feed that had been entrusted by Rio Tinto to specialist contractor SGS Australia for packaging and unpackaging. Transport was then subcontracted out to logistics firm Centurion.

Authorities suspect vibrations from the road train caused the screws and a bolt from the gauge to come loose, and then the capsule fell out. The gauge was picked up from the mine site on January 12 and was unpacked for inspection on January 25 when the loss of the capsule became evident.

Centurion said in a statement that the radioactive capsule was dislodged from equipment contained in a crate. The transport crate and pallet were supplied by SGS, a Centurion spokesperson told Reuters by phone.

The road train travelled from Rio’s Gudai-Darri mine in the state’s remote Kimberley region to a storage facility in the suburbs of Perth – a distance longer than the length of Great Britain.

Search crews are travelling north and south along the state’s Great Northern Highway as well as other sections of the road train’s journey with specialised radiation detection equipment.

The silver capsule, 6mm in diameter and 8mm long, contains Caesium-137, which emits radiation equal to 10 X-rays per hour.

People have been told to stay at least five metres away if they spot it as exposure could cause radiation burns or radiation sickness, though driving past the capsule is believed to be relatively low risk, akin to taking an X-ray.

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