The worst case scenarios with misplaced radioactive materials
The disappearance of a tiny capsule of radioactive material in Western Australia has sparked fears that contamination could cause serious health problems.
But if the Tic-Tac-sized capsule containing Caesium-137 is never found, the side of a highway in the most remote part of the world is far from the worst-case scenario.
Dale Bailey, professor of medical imaging at the University of Sydney, said the capsule would give off the same radiation as a CT scan every hour.
Crews from the WA Department of Fire and Emergency Services are searching for a radioactive capsule believed to have fallen from a truck being transported on a freight route on the outskirts of Perth. (AP)
“If this thing gets lost in the desert, and it’s never found, that’s not a bad outcome,” Bailey said.
“The nightmare scenario is that in five or 10 years some fossilist comes along and puts it in their pocket.”
University of South Australia associate professor of biophysics Ivan Kempson said a fleeting encounter with the capsule was unlikely to be dangerous.
“If you go out in the sun, if you go for a walk for five minutes – not a problem,” he said.
“If you lay down for five hours, you’re going to have a problem with sunburn.”
A tiny radioactive capsule has been lost between a mine in Western Australia’s Pilbara region and Perth, prompting an urgent health alert. (Supply)
Another grim possibility is that the capsule gets stuck in the tire tread of a passing car.
“If there was a bedroom right next to the garage and someone sleeps there every night, someone could get a small dose,” Bailey said.
“But I still don’t think it would approach something as deadly as this.”
The worst scenario with the loss of a radioactive capsule was realized in the 1980s in the USSR.
A capsule containing Caesium-137 was lost in a quarry used to dig up gravel.
Sign up here to receive our daily newsletters and news releases, sent straight to your inbox. A radioactive capsule is embedded in the wall of an apartment block in Kramatorsk, Ukraine. (Google Maps)
By terrible coincidence, that capsule ended up in the building material of an apartment block in the Ukrainian town of Kramatorsk.
The wall where the capsule was stuck happened to be next to the bed of a teenager.
In 1981, the teenage girl died suddenly, followed by her brother and mother, all from leukemia.
Doctors blamed those deaths on genetics.
Only after the leukemia death of a child in a new family that moved into the apartment did an investigation begin.
Six deaths and 17 other cases of radiation exposure have been linked to the Kramatorsk apartment.
Kramatorsk is now in the middle of a war zone between Ukraine and Russia. (AP)
Kramatorsk is now on the front lines of the Ukraine-Russia war.
In another tragic case, a radioactive source was left in a teletherapy unit at an abandoned hospital in Brazil, also in the 1980s.
Two burglars stole the unit and broke it up for scrap metal.
The burglars, unknowingly already suffering from radiation poisoning, sold the radioactive source to a scrap yard.
When the junkyard owner saw it glowing, he brought it into his home and invited friends and family to look at it.
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Ultimately, four people died and 249 suffered radioactive contamination.
But Bailey noted that although it was the same substance, Caesium-137, the situations were very different.
“It was about 2000 times stronger in terms of the radioactivity,” he said.
“It’s not the same size, but it’s the same isotope.”
A tiny radioactive capsule has been lost between a mine in Western Australia’s Pilbara region and Perth, prompting an urgent health alert. (Nine)
It is possible to locate the radioactive capsule, but such a search would be time-consuming.
Sellers can pick up its radioactivity at a distance of about 10 to 15 metres, Bailey told 9news.com.au.
“If they had a van with some detectors mounted around it, and they’re crawling down the road at 10km an hour, you’ve got a chance of finding it,” he said.
But if it fails, the capsule may remain missing forever, but its radioactivity will remain.
Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, meaning it will likely remain radioactive until the year 2323.