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Radioactive needle in a haystack: Tiny capsule lost in rural Australia

Emergency officials in Western Australia issued a hazardous materials warning on Jan. 28 after an 8mm long radioactive capsule went missing. (Video: Reuters)
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Emergency officials in Western Australia warned that a tiny radioactive capsule was on the loose, with a harried hunt underway along a lengthy stretch of highway for what was essentially a toxic needle in a haystack.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services in Western Australia, a largely rural state that makes up the western third of the country, issued a hazardous materials warning Saturday evening, cautioning that the radioactive capsule had been lost while it was being transported from a mine near the town of Newman to a suburb near Perth, the state’s most populous city.

Darryl Ray, acting head of the emergency department, said in a statement Sunday that officials had received specialized equipment to search for the capsule. The equipment will allow workers to look for the capsule while in a moving vehicle, and they plan to use it this week, he said.

“The capsule has still not been found,” Ray added.

The capsule — which is less than a third of an inch long — went missing somewhere along the more than 800-mile stretch of road between Newman and Perth, the department said. It contains cesium-137, a radioactive material used in gauges for mining, one of the main industries in resource-rich Western Australia.

Despite its size, the capsule is dangerous, the department warned. “Exposure to this substance could cause radiation burns or radiation sickness,” it said, cautioning people not to touch it or move it if they come across it. Anyone who sees the capsule should stay at least five meters (16 feet) away from it and report it, the department said.

Authorities did not close the road, National Highway 95, over the ordeal, though the emergency department’s incident map showed the entire stretch of road marked in red with a radioactive warning symbol.

It’s possible the capsule has been missing for a couple of weeks. It departed the mine on Jan. 12 and was thought to have arrived on Jan. 16, but its disappearance was discovered Wednesday when it was missing from the package it was transported in, with the gauge inside “broken apart” with screws and a bolt missing, the department said. Officials said they believe the capsule fell off the back of a truck, according to the Associated Press.

Specialists are focusing on “strategic sites” along the route the truck took, Ray said, noting they were concentrating on high-population areas near Perth.

Cesium-137, the radioactive material inside the capsule, is used for, among other things, detecting the flow of liquid through pipes and determining the thickness of materials like sheets of metal, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Exposure to the material can cause increased risk of cancer, radiation burns, acute radiation sickness and potentially death, according to the CDC.

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