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Authorities search for radioactive capsule gone missing in Western Australia

The tiny piece, which contains dangerous substance Caesium-137, is thought to have broken off on a long-haul truck journey through the outback.

Authorities search for missing radioactive capsule in Western Australia

Authorities in Australia are embarking on a needle-in-a-haystack search to find a radioactive capsule that is thought to have fallen from the back of a truck in the middle of the outback. On Tuesday more personnel and new detection equipment were sent out to help the effort, but their search has turned up nothing so far.

The truck made an 870-mile journey from the remote Gudai-Darri mine to Perth, a stretch that covers most of Western Australia and is longer that the entire California coastline.

The capsule is 8mm high and 6mm wide, and contains the radioactive substance Caesium-137. It had been part of a special gauge used to measure iron ore density as part of the mining process. The gauge was collected from the mine site on 12 January but the missing piece was only noticed when it was inspected in Perth on 25 January.

How did the radioactive capsule get lost?

With nearly two weeks between the collection and the eventual discovery of the missing piece authorities have little idea of where the capsule may be. It is thought that the bumpy road in the outback may have broken the capsule from the device and dislodged a mounting bolt, allowing it to roll freely.

A statement from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) said: “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.”

The device is so small that it will be almost impossible for searchers to find but the effort is continuing throughout the state. Authorities first announced the incident on Friday and an alarm has been raised across Western Australia.

How dangerous is the radioactive capsule in Australia?

Assuming that the tiny capsule cannot be found, what does this mean for those in the region? The substance Caesium-137 can cause anything from skin burns and radiation sickness to deadly cancers. The effects are likely to be more serious for anyone exposed for a prolonged period of time.

The capsule is likely by the roadside in some remote stretch of road in the Australian outback. This means that the chance of a member of the public finding the capsule are slim, but Ivan Kempson, an associate professor in Biophysics from the University of Southern Australia, told CNN that this worst-case scenario is not out of the question.

“This is rare but could happen and has happened before,” Kempson said. “There have been some past examples of people finding similar things and suffering radiation poisoning but they were much stronger than the current capsule that is missing.”

“We are all exposed to a constant level of radiation from things around us and the foods we eat but the primary concern now is the potential impact on health of the person who would find the capsule.”

To aid the search effort authorities are using cars with radiation detection equipment to sweep the road in both directions, going at a speed of 30mph. This effort is expected to last five days; if they are not successful then they may have to resign themselves to the possibility that the capsule is lost for good.


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