Tiny radioactive capsule lost in Australian outback carries the equivalent of 10 X-ray blasts as fears mount it could be picked up by passing traffic

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Australian authorities and mining giants Rio Tinto are scrambling to find a small radioactive capsule lost somewhere along a near-900 mile stretch of road in the outback.

The casing of the capsule contains Caesium-137 — a substance that researchers have found has a lifespan of more than three decades.

According to the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention it can cause burns, acute radiation sickness, and even death. Exposure to Cs-137 can also increase the risk of cancer due to high-energy gamma radiation. 

How was it lost?

The piece is a density gauge used by Rio Tinto and was collected from its Gudai-Darri mine on Jan. 12.

It was reported missing on Jan. 25 when its package was opened at a secure storage facility and pieces that had been packed were not found inside. Authorities fear it was lost in transportation somewhere on the 870-mile stretch from north of Newman to the north-eastern suburbs of Perth.

Further fears have been raised that the item, which is 6 mm by 8 mm in size, has been caught in the tires of passing vehicles and could have been taken off track.

Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) notice online reads: “DFES and radiation specialists are searching along Great Northern Highway by driving north and south directions at slow speeds. Take care when approaching and use caution when overtaking.”

Public warned to stay away from the device

The DFES is being aided in its search by Rio Tinto itself, which has apologized for the loss and has said it is taking the incident “very seriously”.

In a statement to Fortune, the company’s iron ore CEO, Simon Trott, said: “Our priority, as always, is the safety of our communities, our employees, and contractors, and I encourage everyone in the community to follow the advice issued by the Chief Health Officer and DFES.”

Dr Andrew Robertson, chief health officer and radiological council chair in the Western Australia Department of Health has warned people if they see the device “to stay away from it and keep others away from it too”.

He added exposure to trace quantities of the metal is like “receiving 10 X-rays in an hour”, continuing: “Do not touch or pick it up. The public is asked to report it immediately by calling 13 DFES (13 33 37).

“If you have touched the material, or have been close to it for an extended period, contact your local health practitioner or visit a hospital emergency department and tell them that you think you may have been exposed to radioactive material.

“If you are very close to the material or touching it, the radiation risk increases immensely and could cause serious damage to your health, including causing radiation burns to the skin.”

What was it being used for?

The capsule — which is round and silver — was being used at the Gudai-Darri mine site in the Pilbara region of Western Australia to measure the density of iron ore feed in the crushing circuit of the fixed plant. 

It is one of many substances that is routinely stored and transported by the company, which said it had both legal responsibilities and internal standards and procedures to prevent such issues.

Trott added: Rio Tinto engaged a third-party contractor, with appropriate expertise and certification, to safely package the device in preparation for transport off-site ahead of receipt at their facility in Perth. Prior to the device leaving the site, a Geiger counter was used to confirm the presence of the capsule inside the package.  

“As well as fully supporting the relevant authorities, we have launched our own investigation to understand how the capsule was lost in transit. As part of this investigation we are working closely with the contractor to better understand what went wrong in this instance.  

“We have offered our full and ongoing support to authorities in the search for the missing device. We have completed radiological surveys of all areas on site where the device had been, and surveyed roads within the mine site as well as the access road leading away from the Gudai-Darri mine site.” 

What should you do if you find the radioactive capsule?

The advice from DFES adds that those who may encounter the piece should stay at least five meters away from it and should not attempt to transport it by putting it in a bag or a car.

It said it was notified by Western Australia (WA) Police on Jan. 25 that the gauge was broken apart with one of the four mounting bolts missing. The source itself and all the screws on the gauge were also missing.

The body added it was working with the Department of Health, WA Police and Commonwealth Government agencies that specialize in radiation detection.

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