An 8mm by 6mm silver capsule, smaller than a coin, has gone missing along a stretch of Australia’s largest state’s enormous desert highway. Finding it will be like hunting for a needle in a haystack.
On Monday, Rio Tinto, a mining firm, issued an apology and said it was assisting the state government in its search for the missing capsule, which contains Caesium-137, a highly radioactive chemical used in mining equipment.
In a statement, Rio Tinto claimed that it had checked all roads leading to and from the Gudai-Darri mine site in northern Western Australia, where the device was located before a contractor removed it for transport to Perth, the state capital.
Australia is still searching for a radioactive capsule lost by mining company Rio Tinto, capable of causing severe skin damage or cancer.
The size of a pea, it may be stuck in a car tire.
Rio Tinto, which destroyed ancient Aboriginal caves to expand a mine in 2020, apologized. pic.twitter.com/t6Bo8UG5jL
— AJ+ (@ajplus) January 31, 2023
The capsule, which may release both gamma and beta rays, is said to have fallen off the back of a truck when it was traveling over a 1,400 kilometer (870 miles) stretch of the Great Northern Highway, a distance longer than the coastline of California.
Authorities warn that the possibilities of locating the capsule are low due to its small size and the great distances involved.
Also, it’s possible that it’s been moved further away from the search area, posing a radioactive threat to everyone who stumbles across it over the next 300 years.
How did it disappear?
On Friday, state officials warned of a radioactive spill across a large portion of the state’s southern half, including the north-eastern suburbs of Perth, the state capital, home to some 2 million people.
The capsule was reportedly sealed in a package on January 10 and removed from Rio Tinto’s Gudai-Darri mining site on January 12 by a contractor.
Four days after leaving, on January 16, the vehicle finally made it to Perth, where it was unloaded for inspection on January 25, and that’s when the incident happened.
“Upon opening the package, it was found that the gauge was broken apart with one of the four mounting bolts missing and the source itself and all screws on the gauge also missing,” said the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES).
They suspect the package was broken when a mounting bolt was dislodged due to the intense vibrations experienced while traveling over the bumpy roads.
How dangerous is it?
Caesium-137 may cause severe health concerns in people, including skin burns from prolonged contact, radiation illness, and a small but real chance of developing cancer, according to experts.
Standing one meter from the capsule for an hour would expose you to around 1.6 millisieverts (mSv), which is equivalent to approximately 17 normal chest X-rays, according to Radiation Services WA, a company that offers radiation protection advice.
The company warned that picking up the capsule might result in “serious damage” to the user’s fingers and surrounding tissue.
Where does the search stand right now?
The most ridiculous thing about the missing radioactive capsule is that it is 6mm diameter, and about 8mm long and it is missing in a region larger than the length of the UK or Italy. 🙃 https://t.co/mSFuDpLM5L pic.twitter.com/UJA1vy0xla
— Rami Mandow 🏳️🌈 (@CosmicRami) January 27, 2023
Search cars equipped with radiation detectors are slowly moving in both ways up and down the highway at 50 kilometers per hour while authorities try to locate the device.
The DFES said in a statement on Monday that “it will take approximately five days to travel the original route.”
Medical imaging scientist and University of Sydney professor Dale Bailey said the slow speed was necessary to allow detectors to pick up the radiation.
“Radiation detectors on moving vehicles can be used to detect radiation above the natural levels, but the relatively low amount of radiation in the source means that they would have to ‘sweep’ the area relatively slowly,” he said.
Government officials have issued a warning to the public not to approach within five meters of the device, despite the fact that it is difficult to spot from a distance.
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