Radioactive capsule in Western Australia missing: search continues for unity between Newman and Perth
A dangerous radioactive capsule was missing for two weeks before anyone realized it, officials have admitted.
Authorities have launched an investigation to determine how the small but potentially deadly radioactive capsule was lost when it was being transported from a Western Australian Rio Tinto mine to Perth.
The eight-by-six-millimeter unit is believed to have fallen off the back of a lorry during the 1,400-mile journey from Newman to a depot in the Perth suburb of Malaga.
Emergency services claim they are being hampered in their efforts to find the capsule by a lack of equipment and have called on the Commonwealth and other states to provide more, including units that can be mounted on a vehicle.
An eight-by-six-millimeter radioactive capsule believed to have fallen off the back of a mine truck sometime between Jan. 10 and Jan. 16 is under urgent scrutiny (pictured, authorities search for the missing unit)
WA authorities said the capsule (left) is similar in size to an Australian 10 cent coin (right)
The Ministry of Fire and Emergency Services has deployed teams with portable radiation detection equipment and metal detectors along 36 km of the busy freight route.
Superintendent Darryl Ray said they focused on populated areas north of Perth and strategic locations along the Great Northern Highway.
“What we’re not doing is trying to find a little device based on eyesight,” he told reporters on Saturday.
“We’re using the radiation detectors to locate the gamma rays.”
In a disturbing twist on Friday, Superintendent of Fire and Emergency Services, Darryl Ray, admitted that no one had missed the dangerous radioactive pod for more than two weeks.
Authorities are also using the truck’s GPS data to determine the exact route the driver took and where he stopped after leaving the mine on or about Jan. 10.
But there are concerns that the fixed pod may already be lodged in another vehicle’s tire and may be hundreds of miles from the search area.
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services deployed teams with portable radiation detection equipment (above) and metal detectors along part of the truck’s route
Authorities warned that contact with the capsule could result in skin damage, burns and radiation sickness, including effects on the immune system and gastrointestinal system (pictured, authorities search for the capsule)
It is believed that a screw came loose in the large lead-lined gauge it sat in and the unit fell through a hole left by the missing fastener.
Rio Tinto said it contracted an expert radioactive material handler to pack the capsule and transport it “safely” to the depot and was only told on Wednesday that it was missing.
Chief Health Officer Andrew Robertson defended the WA government’s decision to wait two days on Friday to inform the public, saying the mine and depot should be searched and ruled out, and the route confirmed.
He said the capsule was packed in accordance with transport and radiation safety regulations in a box bolted to a pallet.
“We think the truck’s vibration compromised the integrity of the meter, it fell apart and the source actually came out,” he said.
“It’s unusual for a meter to fall apart like this.”
It is believed that a screw came loose in the large lead-lined gauge that contained the radioactive capsule and the unit fell through a hole left by the missing closure (pictured, the search for the 10-cent sized radioactive capsule)
Superintendent Darryl Ray admitted the capsule was missing for two weeks before authorities were notified (pictured, the search for the capsule)
An investigation will look at the handling of the gauge and capsule at the mine site, the transport route used and procedures at the depot in Perth after it arrived on Jan. 16.
Police have determined that the incident was an accident and criminal charges are unlikely.
Authorities also ruled out theft at the depot before opening the box on Wednesday because it had anti-tampering tape on it.
The small silver cylinder is a 19-becquerel caesium 137 ceramic source commonly used in radiation meters.
Dr. Robertson previously said the unit is broadcasting the equivalent of 10 x-rays in an hour and members of the public should keep at least five feet away.
Contact can cause skin damage, burns and radiation sickness, including effects on the immune system and gastrointestinal system.
Long-term exposure can also cause cancer, but experts say the capsule cannot be used as a weapon.
“Our concern is that someone picks it up, not knowing what it is, thinks this is something interesting[and]keeps it,” Dr Robertson said.
RADIOACTIVE CAPSULE MISSING TIMELINE
January 10 – The truck carrying the capsule in a large lead-lined gauge leaves the Newman Rio Tinto mine for Perth.
January 16 – The truck arrives in Perth and is transferred to a specialist radiation service.
January 25 – The truck is opened for the first time and the capsule is discovered to be missing.
January 27 – The public is informed about the capsule and the serious – possibly deadly – health risks it poses.