A radioactive capsule has been found that fell from a truck in the Australian outback, prompting a radiation alert and a search of hundreds of kilometers of road.
Western Australia’s emergency services minister said the silver capsule, which emits the isotope Cesium-137, had been located about two meters from the road.
Authorities were searching for the 6 mm by 8 mm capsule and retracing the truck’s 870-mile (1,400 km) route with radiation scanning equipment.
The capsule was being checked by the military and was due to be taken to a secure facility in Perth.
Minister Stephen Dawson called it an “extraordinary result”.
How was the capsule found?
It took several government agencies six days to find the missing capsule.
The search involved Western Australia’s emergency response department, police, fire and rescue service, along with the Australian Department of Defence, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency and the Australian Nuclear Technology and Science Organisation.
They traveled the capsule’s 870-mile route along the Great Northern Highway and other roads in both directions using vehicles equipped with specialized radiation equipment capable of marking the isotope Caesium-137 inside.
The vehicles traveled at “slow speeds” and eventually spotted the pod as it passed it at 43 mph.
Niall Monaghan, senior physicist at Radiation Consultancy Services Ltd, tells Sky News it would have been easy to detect with a moving vehicle.
“It’s pretty radioactive, so you’d see it pretty easily with a basic detector, even traveling at 40 mph.
“Cesium-137 emits gamma rays, which are more penetrating than X-rays.
“So at that intensity, the capsule would easily be picked up by a detector like a Geiger counter, the ones you see in the movies that crackle when they find something.
“If you were going really fast, you might miss it, but it’s the same as if it was dark and you were looking for something shiny, you’d still see it.”
Authorities previously said it would take five days to restore the route, with Minister Stephen Dawson describing the end result as “literally finding a needle in a haystack”.
Radioactive capsule missing in Australia after falling from mining truck
Scientists simulated a nuclear explosion in a major city and how you could survive it
“When you consider the scope of the search area, locating this object was a monumental challenge, search parties have literally found a needle in a haystack,” he said.
The capsule was found when a vehicle with scanning equipment picked up radiation while passing at about 70 km/h (43 mph).
People had been warned of possible radiation burns, illness and damage to their immune and gastrointestinal systems if they came within five meters of the capsule.
However, passing it was described as much lower risk, similar to having an X-ray.
It was discovered far from any community, and it is unlikely that anyone would have been exposed to its radiation, Western said. Australiahealth director of Andrew Robertson.
The capsule is owned by mining company Rio Tinto and is part of an indicator used to measure the density of iron ore.
Vibrations during shipping are believed to have caused screws and a screw to loosen from the indicator, allowing it to fall.
The search area was wide as the truck covered a distance longer than Great Britain on its journey from the Gudai-Darri mine in the remote Kimberley region to the suburbs of Perth.
Police, the Department of Defense and Australia’s nuclear agency were involved after the capsule was reported missing on January 25.
They had been traveling the state’s Great Northern Highway as well as other sections of the route used by the road train – a truck pulling several trailers.
As of Tuesday, about 410 miles (660 km) had been searched.
Rio Tinto, which handed the capsule over to another company to transport, apologized for the “very worrying” incident and said it had launched its own investigation.
Authorities are conducting their own investigation, but under state laws from 1975, the fine for mishandling radioactive substances is currently just A$1,000, and A$50 per day the offense continues.
“This number is ridiculously low,” said Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
“But I suspect it’s ridiculously low because people didn’t think this item could be lost.”
Police have considered filing possible criminal charges, but have concluded there is no case to answer.