Home / News / World /  Lost radioactive capsule found in Australia: How risky was it?

Authorities said on February 1 that they had discovered a tiny but extremely-radioactive capsule that had fallen from a truck along a lonely section of desert road in Western Australia in January.

"It's a good result, as I've said it's certainly a needle in a haystack that has been found, and I think West Australians can sleep better tonight," West Australian emergency services minister Stephen Dawson told reporters.

Earlier, Australian officials conducted a thorough search for a small radioactive capsule that was thought to have fallen from a road train, or a truck hauling many trailers, that travelled 1,400 kilometres through Western Australia.

There was an extensive search for the radioactive capsule.
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There was an extensive search for the radioactive capsule.

With specialised radiation detection gear, search teams travelled north and south along the Great Northern Highway in the state as well as other stretches of the road train's route. The path of the road train is covered over the course of five days, according to the Department of Fire and Emergency Services on January 30. More than 660 miles were reportedly searched as of January 31.

The Department of Defense, the police, the Australian Nuclear and Science Technology Organisation, and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency were among the at least five additional government organisations that participated in the search.

The radioactive capsule

The small silver capsule was a part of a gauge used at Rio Tinto's remote Gudai-Darri mine to track the density of iron ore feed. It is only 6 mm in diameter and 8 mm long.

A different logistics company took up the gauge from the mine on January 12 after it had been packaged by a specialised contractor. On January 25, it was discovered split apart, missing the capsule, and missing one of its four attachment bolts. The gauge apparently broke apart and the capsule fell out due to vibrations from the road train, according to the authorities.

How much risk was involved?

It is filled with caesium-137 and produces 10 X-rays' worth of radiation every hour. Large areas of Western Australia are under a radiation alert, and if one is detected, officials advise people to keep at least five metres (16.5 feet) away because radiation exposure can result in radiation illness or burns. However, passing it while driving is thought to pose a low danger.

(With agency inputs)

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