A dangerous radioactive capsule was missing for two weeks before anybody realised, officials have admitted.
An investigation has been launched to determine how the tiny but potentially deadly capsule got lost as it was transported from a West Australian Rio Tinto mine to Perth.
The eight by six millimetre unit is believed to have fallen off the back of a truck on its 1400 kilometre journey from Newman to a depot in the Perth suburb of Malaga between January 10 and 16.
However, in a disturbing twist on Friday, Department of Fire and Emergency Services Superintendent Darryl Ray admitted no one had noticed the capsule was missing for more than two weeks.
Rio Tinto said it contracted an expert radioactive materials handler to package the capsule and transport it ‘safely’ to the depot and was not told it was missing until Wednesday.
An urgent search continues for an eight by six millimetre radioactive capsule that is believed to have fell off the back of a mining truck sometime between January 10 and January 16 (pictured, authorities searching for the missing unit)
WA Authorities said the capsule (left) is similar to the size of an Australia 10 cent coin (right)
Authorities are using the truck’s GPS data to determine the exact route the driver took and where it stopped after it left the mine on or about January 10.
But there are concerns the solid capsule may have already become lodged in another vehicle’s tyre and potentially be hundreds of kilometres away from the search area.
It is believed a screw worked loose inside the large lead-lined gauge it was contained in and the unit fell through a hole left by the missing fastener.
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services has deployed teams with handheld radiation detection devices and metal detectors along 36km of the busy freight route.
Superintendent Ray said they were concentrating on populated areas north of Perth and strategic sites along the Great Northern Highway.
‘What we’re not doing is trying to find a tiny little device by eyesight’ he told reporters on Saturday.
‘We’re using the radiation detectors to locate the gamma rays.’
Emergency services claim they are hampered in their efforts to find the capsule by a lack of equipment and have called on the Commonwealth and other states to provide more, including units that can be fitted to a vehicle.
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services has deployed teams with handheld radiation detection devices (above) and metal detectors along part of the truck’s route
Authorities warned contact with the capsule could result in skin damage, burns and radiation sickness, including impacts to the immune and the gastrointestinal systems (pictured, authorities searching for the capsule)
Chief Health Officer Andrew Robertson defended the WA government’s decision to wait two days to inform the public on Friday, saying the mine and depot had to be searched and excluded, and the route confirmed.
He said the capsule was packed in accordance with the radiation safety transport and regulations inside a box bolted onto a pallet.
‘We believe the vibration of the truck may have impacted the integrity of the gauge, that it fell apart and the source actually came out of it,’ he said.
‘It is unusual for a gauge to come apart like this one has.’
An investigation will look at the handling of the gauge and capsule at the mine site, the transport route used and the procedures at the depot in Perth after it arrived on January 16.
It is believed a screw worked loose inside the large lead-lined gauge that contained the radioactive capsule and the unit fell through a hole left by the missing fastener (pictured, the search for the 10 cent-sized radioactive capsule)
Superintendent Darryl Ray admitted the capsule was missing for two weeks before authorities were notified (pictured, the search for the capsule)
Police have determined the incident to be an accident and no criminal charges are likely.
Authorities has also ruled out theft at the depot before the box was opened on Wednesday, saying there was anti-tampering tape on the box.
The small silver cylinder is a 19-becquerel caesium 137 ceramic source commonly used in radiation gauges.
Dr Robertson previously said the unit emits the equivalent of having 10 X-rays in an hour and members of the public should stay at least five metres away.
Contact could result in skin damage, burns and radiation sickness, including impacts to the immune and the gastrointestinal systems.
Long-term exposure could also cause cancer, however, experts say the capsule cannot be weaponised.
‘Our concern is someone will pick it up, not knowing what it is, think this is something interesting (and) keep it,’ Dr Robertson said.
RADIOACTIVE CAPSULE MISSING TIMELINE
January 10 – The truck carrying the capsule in a large lead-lined gauge leaves the Newman Rio Tinto mine for Perth.
January 16 – The truck arrives in Perth and is transferred to a specialist radiation service.
January 25 – The truck is opened for the first time and it’s discovered the capsule is missing.
January 27 – The public is informed about the capsule and the serious – possibly fatal – health risks it poses.
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