Australian nuclear body joins search for missing radioactive capsule

Australian nuclear body joins search for missing radioactive capsule

MELBOURNE, Jan 31 (Reuters) – Australia’s nuclear safety agency said on Tuesday it had joined the search for a tiny radioactive capsule missing somewhere offshore, sending a team with specialized car-mounted and portable detection equipment.

Authorities are now on a week-long search for the capsule, which is believed to have fallen from a truck that made a 1,400 km (870 mile) journey in Western Australia. The loss prompted a radiation alert for large parts of the sprawling state.

The capsule, part of a gauge used to measure the density of iron ore feed, was entrusted by Rio Tinto Ltd ( RIO.AX ) to a specialist contractor to transport. On Monday, Rio apologized for the loss, which happened sometime in the past two weeks.

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency said it was working with the Western Australian government to locate the capsule. It added that the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization had also sent specialists for radiation services as well as detection and imaging equipment.

The truck traveled from Rio’s Gudai-Darri mine, north of Newman, a small town in the remote Kimberley region, to a storage facility in the suburbs of Perth – a distance longer than the length of Great Britain.

State emergency officials on Tuesday issued a new warning to motorists along Australia’s longest highway to use caution when approaching the search, as vehicles carrying the radiation detectors travel at slow speeds.

“It will take approximately five days to travel the original route, an estimated 1400kms, with crews traveling north and south along the Great Northern Highway,” Department of Fire and Emergency Services incident controller Darryl Ray said in a statement late Monday said.

The meter was picked up from the mine site on 12 January. When it was unpacked for inspection on January 25, the meter was found broken, with one of four mounting bolts missing and screws from the meter also gone.

Authorities suspect vibrations from the truck caused the screws and the bolt to come loose, and the capsule fell out of the package and then through a gap in the truck.

The silver capsule, 6 mm in diameter and 8 mm long, contains Caesium-137 which emits radiation equivalent to 10 X-rays per hour.

People were told to stay at least five meters (16.5 feet) away, as exposure could cause radiation burns or radiation sickness, although driving past the capsule is a relatively low risk, similar to taking an X- jet.

Reporting by Melanie Burton in Melbourne; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Edwina Gibbs

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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