Radioactive capsule remains lost in Australia, mining company apologizes
Tiny device emits radiation equal to about 10 X-rays an hour, health officer says
A mining corporation on Sunday apologized for losing a highly radioactive capsule over a 1,400-kilometre stretch of Western Australia, as authorities combed parts of the road looking for the tiny but dangerous substance.
The capsule was part of a device believed to have fallen off a truck while being transported between a desert mine site and the city of Perth on Jan. 10.
The truck transporting the capsule arrived at a Perth depot on Jan. 16. Emergency services were notified of the missing capsule on Jan. 25.
Emergency services in Western Australia have called on other Australian states and the federal government for support finding the capsule because they lack equipment. The capsule measures eight millimetres by six millimetres, and people have been warned it could have unknowingly become lodged in their car's tires.
The caesium-137 ceramic source, commonly used in radiation gauges, emits dangerous amounts of radiation, equivalent to receiving 10 X-rays in an hour, Western Australia Chief Health Officer Dr. Andrew Robertson said. It could cause skin burns, and prolonged exposure could cause cancer.
"So if you have contact or have it close to you, you could either end up with skin damage, including skin burns over a period of time. And if you have it long enough near you, it could cause what's known as acute radiation sickness; now that will take a period of time," Robertson said on Friday.
The chief executive of mining giant Rio Tinto Iron Ore, Simon Trott, said the company was taking the incident very seriously and apologized for causing public concern.
Entire transport route may be searched
"We recognize this is clearly very concerning and are sorry for the alarm it has caused in the Western Australian community," Trott said. "As well as fully supporting the relevant authorities, we have launched our own investigation to understand how the capsule was lost in transit."
The search has involved people scanning for radiation levels from the device along roads used by the trucks, with authorities indicating the entire transport route might have to be searched.
Western Australia's Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) publicly announced the capsule had gone missing on Friday, two days after it was notified by Rio Tinto.
Vibrations could have dislodged capsule
Authorities said they believe vibrations along the transport route caused a bolt from the container in which the capsule was being transported to be displaced, with the capsule then falling through the hole and off a flat-bed truck.
"The capsule appears to have been lost during transportation between mine sites north of Newman and northeast or in northeastern parts of Perth," said DFES Country North chief superintendent David Gill.
Trott said the contractor was qualified to transport the device and it had been confirmed to being on board the truck by a Geiger counter prior to leaving the mine.
Police have determined the incident was an accident, and no criminal charges are likely.
With files from Reuters