Search for the tiny, yet deadly radioactive capsule that went missing more than two weeks ago in Western Australia has gathered pace. The device got lost while being transported on a truck from a mine to a depot in the city of Perth.
The capsule is said to have fallen off the back of a truck from the Rio Tinto mine in Newman to the Perth suburb of Malaga. Authorities said vibrations during the transit may have caused the bolts to become loose, causing the device to fall through the gaps in the casing and truck.
Western Australia's Department of Fire and Emergency Services is set to deploy new radiation detection equipment that could be fitted to vehicles to help locate the device somewhere along the 1,400 km journey from which it originally disappeared. Teams equipped with handheld radiation detection devices and metal detectors are already looking for the 8 mm by 6 mm object along 36 km of a busy freight route.
However, Authorities believe the capsule might never be found, likening it to a needle in a haystack.
A Very Tiny Little Device But Very Lethal
Superintendent Darryl Ray said they are trying to find a tiny little device by eyesight, with search teams concentrated on populated areas north of Perth and strategic sites along the Great Northern Highway. "We're using the radiation detectors to locate the gamma rays," he said.
Experts said the capsule contains a small quantity of radioactive Caesium-137, which could cause illness, including skin damage, burns or radiation sickness, to anyone who comes in contact with it. The capsule's radioactive material, which emits both gamma and beta rays, has a half-life of 30 years. Experts warned that standing within a meter of the capsule is like receiving 10 x-rays in an hour. The capsule is part of a density gauge, common in the mining industry. It was being used at Rio Tinto's Gudai-Darri mine in the remote Kimberley region.
Emergency authorities said chances of finding the tiny device are pretty good, but it may have become lodged in another vehicle's tyre and could well be outside the search zone already.
Mining Company Apologizes
Rio Tinto, the mining company, said it was sorry for the alarm it has caused. Simon Trott, CEO of Rio Tinto's iron ore division, said they are working closely with the contractor to better understand what went wrong.
"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," he said.
The mining company has also launched an investigation of its own into the matter.
Meanwhile, officials are concerned that someone could pick up the capsule not knowing what it was. As such, a radiation alert has been issued across a vast swathe of Western Australia.