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Australia recovers radioactive capsule, finds ‘needle in the haystack’

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A small but dangerous radioactive capsule was found on February 1 that fell from a truck along a remote section of Western Australia’s outback highway last month, officials said.Handout/AFP/Getty Images

Australian officials Wednesday found a radioactive capsule smaller than a coin lost in the vast outback.

A cesium-137 capsule that was lost in transit more than two weeks ago was discovered when a vehicle traveling at 70 km/h equipped with specialized detection equipment detected radiation, according to Western Australian officials. rice field.

A search team later found the capsule using a portable detection device. The capsule was located about 2 meters off the roadside in a remote area far from the community.

The radioactive capsule was part of a gauge used to measure the density of iron ore sourced from Rio Tinto’s Gudaidari mine in the state’s remote Kimberley region. Gage had been taken to a facility on the outskirts of Perth, the state capital. This is a distance longer than the length of the UK.

We were told to stay at least 5 meters away if we found a capsule, as exposure can cause radiation burns and radiation sickness. But like getting an X-ray, driving past was considered relatively low-risk.

Western Australia’s Minister for Emergency Services, Stephen Dawson, said the findings were an “extraordinary result” after a search involving the state’s emergency response department, defense officials and radiation experts.

“It was a tremendous challenge to locate this object given the search range. The search group literally found a needle in the haystack,” he said.

There is a 20-meter no-go zone around the capsule, and members of the Defense Force identify the capsule by serial number.

It will then be placed in a lead container and held overnight in a secure location in the mining town of Newman, about 1,200 kilometers northwest of Perth, before being transported to the state capital on Thursday.

A silver capsule, 6 mm in diameter and 8 mm long, contains cesium-137 that emits radiation equivalent to 10 X-rays per hour.

Officials added that the capsules appeared to have fallen off the truck and onto the side of the road during transportation, making it unlikely that contamination would occur in the area.

Simon Trott, head of the iron ore division, told reporters that Rio was prepared to pay for the search if the government requested it. He added that a full investigation was conducted into the circumstances of the loss and that the company will take additional controls to prevent a recurrence.

In a statement, Rio said it would investigate whether the use of professional contractors was appropriate, and entrusted the packaging and transportation of the gauges to SGS Australia and Centurion respectively.

SGS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, Centurion requested an answer as to how the capsule became detached during transit, given that the SGS-provided crate and pallet arrived in Perth in the same condition as at the start of the trip. , said the GPS data did not show any abrupt changes in velocity. .

“From a freight and logistics perspective, this indicates routine movement, and the fact that the crate was not opened for a week after delivery reinforces that view,” Centurion said.

Western Australia’s chief health officer, Andrew Robertson, said investigations and prosecutions would be considered under the state’s radiation safety legislation since 1975.

The maximum penalty for failing to handle radioactive material safely is A$1,000 and A$50 per day for continued offences, but the state government on Wednesday announced changes to the law allowing for greater penalties. said it was under consideration.

Officials said the change in penalties would not be retroactive.

Australia’s Nuclear Safety Authority announced on January 31 that it had dispatched a team equipped with special vehicle-mounted and hand-held detection equipment to join the search for a small radioactive capsule that went missing somewhere in the outback. .


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