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Radioactive capsule that fell off truck in Australia’s Outback is found

Fire officials searching along a highway for a tiny radioactive capsule
Fire officials in the state of Western Australia search for a radioactive capsule that fell off a truck while it was traveling on a highway.
(Department of Fire and Emergency Services of Western Australia)
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Authorities in the state of Western Australia on Wednesday recovered a tiny but dangerous radioactive capsule that fell off a truck while being transported along an 870-mile highway through the Outback, in an operation likened by an official to finding a needle in a haystack.

Officials said the capsule, about the size of a pea, was found south of the mining town of Newman on the Great Northern Highway. It was detected by a search vehicle traveling at more than 40 mph when specialist equipment picked up radiation being emitted by the capsule.

Portable search equipment was then used to zero in on the capsule, which lay 6½ feet from the side of the road.

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“This is an extraordinary result,” said state Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson, adding that the searchers had “found the needle in the haystack.”

State Chief Health Officer Andy Robertson said the capsule did not appear to have moved, and no injuries had been reported.

The capsule contains the cesium 137 ceramic source, which is commonly used in radiation gauges and which emits dangerous amounts of radiation, equivalent to 10 X-rays in an hour. It could cause skin burns, and prolonged exposure could cause cancer.

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Search crews had spent six days scouring the entire length of the highway.

The capsule measures 0.31 inches by 0.24 inches, and people were warned that it could become lodged in their car tires without their knowledge.

A government investigation has been launched into how the capsule fell off the truck, and a report will be given to the health minister.

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Defense officials were verifying the identification of the capsule, which was placed into a lead container for safety. It will be stored in a secure location in Newman before being taken to a health facility in the city of Perth.

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The capsule got lost while being transported between a desert mine site and Perth on Jan. 10. The truck carrying the capsule arrived at a Perth depot Jan. 16. Emergency services were notified of the missing capsule Jan. 25.

Simon Trott, the chief executive of mining giant Rio Tinto Iron Ore, apologized for the incident and expressed gratitude for the find.

“A pretty incredible recovery when you think of the distances involved, and also the remoteness of the terrain, and I think that really speaks to the tenacity of all those who were involved in the search,” Trott said.

“The simple fact is this device should never have been lost. We’re sorry that that has occurred, and we’re sorry for the concern that that has caused within the Western Australian community,” Trott added.

Robertson, the chief health officer, said the investigation of the mishap could lead to a prosecution.

“We have the ability to prosecute under the Radiation Safety Act, and we will certainly look at such prosecutions, and we’ve done that in the past,” Robertson said.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said a fine of 1,000 Australian dollars (about $710) was an inadequate maximum penalty for mishandling radioactive material.

“It shouldn’t have been lost — that’s the first thing. And second, yeah, of course that figure is ridiculously low,” Albanese said.

Dawson said the Western Australian state government was reviewing the penalties under the Radiation Safety Act.

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