< Australia Recovers Tiny Radioactive Container in the Desert
By Dan Novak
01 February 2023

Australian officials on Wednesday recovered a powerfully radioactive container that was lost in the desert.

Officials said a team found the small container, or capsule, after days of searching, involving about 100 people along 1,400 kilometers of highway. The capsule is smaller than a coin, a piece of metal money.

The capsule contained Caesium-137, a highly radioactive material. It was lost while being transported more than two weeks ago. A vehicle equipped with special detection equipment picked up the radiation from the capsule, officials from the state of Western Australia said.

A handout image shows Department of Fire and Emergency Services crew searching for a radioactive capsule from a Rio Tinto mine.
A handout image shows Department of Fire and Emergency Services crew searching for a radioactive capsule from a Rio Tinto mine.

The search team then used smaller detection equipment to find the capsule itself. It was about two meters from the side of the road in an area far from any community, officials added.

The mining company Rio Tinto used the radioactive capsule to measure the density of iron ore in the Gudai-Darri mine in the Australian state's remote Kimberley area.

Rio Tinto was sending the capsule to a center near the state capital, Perth. The distance from Kimberly to Perth is greater than length of the Island of Great Britain.

Simon Trott, the head of iron ore for Rio Tinto, said the company would pay for the cost of the search if asked by the state government.

"We're sorry that that has occurred and we're sorry for the concern that that has caused within the Western Australian community," he said.

Australians had been told to stay at least five meters away if they saw the capsule. Exposure to radiation could cause radiation burns or sickness. But, driving past was said to be low risk.

Western Australia's Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson said the discovery was an "extraordinary result." The search involved the state's emergency response department, defense officials and radiation experts.

People are not permitted to go within 20 meters of the capsule while defense officials confirm it through a serial number. It will then be placed in a lead container and kept in a secure place in Newman. Newman is a town about 1,200 kilometers north-west of Perth. It will be taken to the state capital on Thursday.

The capsule is only six millimeters across and eight millimeters long. But, it contains Caesium-137. The small amount can release radiation equal to 10 X-rays every hour.

Officials said the capsule fell off a truck and landed on the side of the road. Officials added that it was unlikely contamination in the area would be a problem.

Seeking Answers

Rio Tinto said in a statement that it would investigate whether it should have hired specialist contractors. SGS Australia prepared the capsule and Centurion transported it.

Centurion said it is investigating how the capsule fell off the truck. The container provided by SGS arrived in Perth in the same condition in which it was sent. Technical GPS information showed the truck did not suddenly change speed.

Western Australia's Chief Health Officer Andrew Robertson said there would be an investigation. He said officials would consider charges under the state's radiation safety laws from 1975.

The highest fine for failing to safely deal with radioactive substances is about $700. The state government said on Wednesday it was considering a change to permit bigger fines.

But officials said they may not use new laws against Rio Tinto for this incident.

I'm Dan Novak.

Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by Reuters.


Words in This Story

radioactive — adj. releasing a powerful and dangerous form of atomic radiation

capsule — n. a (usually very small) container

detection — n. the active of finding something that you are looking for

contamination — n. the addition of something that is not supposed to be in a place or substance which is often harmful

iron ore — n. rocks that contain minerals with the element iron in them

remote — adj. far away from things like houses, people or cities

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