Multinational mining company Rio Tinto has apologized for the loss of a small, highly radioactive capsule along a 1,400-kilometer route in Western Australia.
According to the Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES), the pea-sized capsule is only 6mm in diameter and 8mm long, but it still appears to contain trace amounts of radiation.
Authorities announced the capsule was missing on Friday, two days after being notified by Rio.
The microcapsules, which contain small amounts of radioactive cesium-137, are believed to have fallen from a cargo truck en route from a desert mine to the city of Perth.
Diagram showing the size of the radioactive capsule. It is 6mm x 8mm.
This graphic shows the size of the lost radioactive capsule of the mining giant Rio Tinto in Western Australia. Facebook / Australian Fire and Emergency Services
Australian authorities were looking for a shipping route – roughly the same distance as Ottawa, Ontario. for Regina—since they were reported missing on January 25. Australians have been warned that silver capsules can accidentally get stuck in car tires.
Emergency services are using specialized radiation detection equipment to locate the capsule. According to the BBC, they say there is a “reasonable” chance of finding the device.
A fire truck and two men wearing high-visibility jackets travel along the road. View photos in full screen
Members of Fire and Emergency Services are searching for a radioactive capsule believed to have fallen from a lorry being transported on a freight route in the suburbs of Perth, Australia. Department of Fire and Emergency Services/Affiliate Press
Authorities said the capsule could not be weaponized and if residents happened to find it, under no circumstances should they touch it but call local authorities.
DFES says contact with capsule material can cause radiation burns and radiation sickness; Exposure to the irradiated capsule is equivalent to 10 x-ray exposures per hour. Prolonged exposure to any radiation can cause cancer.
Authorities say radioactive cesium-137 is used in equipment in the mining operation.
Chief Executive Simon Rotter said in a statement released on Sunday: “We recognize this is clearly very disturbing and apologize for the panic it has caused to the Western Australian community. “In line with our full support to the authorities, we have opened our own investigation into how the capsules were misplaced in transit.”
The radioactive capsule was being shipped by a qualified subcontracting company when it disappeared. Officials confirmed that the capsules were on the truck before being shipped. When the shipment arrived in Perth on January 25, the capsules were no longer there.
“Once unpacked, the gauge was found to be cracked, missing one of the four mounting bolts, as well as all screws on the power source and gauge itself,” a statement read.
Police determined the incident was an accident and there is no possibility of criminal charges.
This is not the first time Rio Tinto’s reputation has been criticized in Australia. In 2020, the company demolished a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal sacred stone shelter in Western Australia while expanding its iron mine.