Australians Scour Desert for Dangerous Radioactive Capsule Smaller Than a Penny

Western Australian authorities are searching for a dangerously radioactive capsule, which they believe fell from a truck while being transported.

But they have a problem: the capsule is smaller than a penny, while the search area is a stretch of a vast desert highway as long as the California coast.

The capsule, a small silver cylinder measuring 0.3 inches by 0.2 inches, came from a Rio Tinto mine and was part of a sensor used in mining. The sensor was placed on a truck and driven from the mine near Newman in the remote north of Western Australia to Perth, the state capital, on a journey that took several days.

The capsule, which contains a small amount of cesium-137, is dangerously radioactive, according to authorities. An hour of exposure from about a meter away is the equivalent of having 10 X-rays, and prolonged contact can cause skin burns, acute radiation sickness and cancer, they said.

The truck carrying the sensor arrived in Perth on January 16. On Friday, almost two weeks later, authorities called an emergency press conference to alert the public that the capsule had disappeared somewhere along the 1,400-kilometer or 870-mile journey. .

“We want the public to be aware of the possibility of finding the small capsule and the risks,” David Gill, chief superintendent of Western Australia’s emergency services department, said at a news conference on Friday.

The state’s health director, Dr. Andrew Robertson, warned the public to stay at least five meters from the capsule if they see it.

Authorities have acknowledged that they have a long distance to travel and that the search is likely to take “weeks, not days.” But they hope it’s a little easier than looking for a needle in a haystack.

“What we’re not doing is trying to find a small device with the naked eye,” Darryl Ray, the acting superintendent of Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services, said at a news conference on Saturday. “We are using the radiation detectors to locate the gamma rays, using the meters, which will help us locate the little device.”

The news of a missing radioactive cylinder caused many on the Internet to make the joke: Is Homer Simpson to blame?

The pod was lost not through cartoonish slapstick, but through a series of almost cinematic events.

According to authorities, the sensor containing the pod was placed inside a wooden box, which was bolted to a pallet and placed on the back of a flatbed truck.

They believe the vibrations from the truck caused the sensor to shake and also dislodged a mounting bolt, leaving a hole in the bottom of the case. The capsule is believed to have slipped off the sensor, through the bolt hole, onto the surface of the truck and bounced on the road.

Although the truck made the trip from January 12 to 16, the capsule was not discovered to be missing until January 25. The box the sensor was stored in was “completely secure on arrival” when it arrived in Perth. where it was placed in protective storage, Dr. Robertson, the public health official, said Friday. It was only when the box was unpacked for inspection for the first time on January 25 that the capsule was discovered to be missing, he added.

When the box was opened, it was discovered that the sensor had “broken”, Dr. Robertson told a local radio station. “I was literally in pieces.”

Dr. Robertson added that authorities were alerted late on January 25 and spent the next day touring all likely locations the capsule could be, including pickup and drop-off sites, before making the decision to notify the public.

Police believe the disappearance was an accident and there is no evidence the box was tampered with after it arrived in Perth, he said. But he added that it was unusual for a sensor, or indicator, to break down and that authorities would investigate how the situation had been handled.

“These meters are designed to be robust and for use in industrial settings where they may be exposed to weather and vibration,” Dr. Robertson said at a news conference on Saturday, “so it is unusual for a meter to fall apart. this way. one has.”

Rio Tinto, one of the country’s largest mining corporations, said in a statement that it learned of the capsule’s disappearance on January 25 through the contractor it had hired to handle and package the capsule before transporting it.