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The radioactive capsule that was reported as being lost in the desert of Western Australia earlier this week — having apparently fallen from a truck — has been found. The pea-sized capsule, which contains a small amount of the radioactive isotope ceasium-137, was lost around two weeks ago during a journey from Rio Tinto’s Gudai-Darri mine in the Pilbara region and a storage depot in the city of Perth. This route — along which authorities have been searching the last six days with radiation detectors — covered a whopping 870 miles. Search parties detected the capsule some six feet from the side of the road just south of the town of Newman.
The tiny radioactive source was part of a so-called density gauge, a device used by the mining industry to measure the density and inner structure of materials.
It is believed that the vibration of transit shook the machine loose — a mounting bolt and matching screw is also missing — allowing the 6mm wide, 8mm long metal capsule to roll out of gaps in both the gauge and the truck carrying it.
It took some time for the loss to be noticed, however, as the contents of the truck were not analysed for nearly ten days after it arrived at its destination in Perth.
Rio Tinto — the firm which operates the Gudai-Darri mine — were reported to have apologised for the loss of the capsule, having told BBC News that they were conducting an investigation “to better understand what went wrong in this instance”.
A government investigation has also been launched into how the capsule escaped the transport truck — with a report expected to be presented to the Australian health minister.
Given the size of the capsule, officials had feared that it could easily have been picked up in the tread of another vehicle’s tyres and transported further afield — or, worse, have broken open, increasing the potential health risks.
Fortunately, however, officials said that the capsule did not appear to have been moved after it was initially lost — and no injuries had been reported as a result of the accident.
Sufficient exposure to radiation from the capsule could have potentially caused radiation burns or sickness.
In a case from 1999 with a less happy outcome, a welder in Yanango, Peru, pocketed an iridium-192 source used for radiography — and the high radiation dose he received ultimately forced doctors to amputate his leg.
The radiation emitted by the capsule was detected by a search vehicle travelling at 43 miles per hour along the Great Northern Highway which runs from Western Australia’s northernmost port, Wyndham, to the state capital of Perth.
Australia’s Minister for Emergency Services, Stephen Dawson, said: “This is an extraordinary result — they have quite literally found the needle in the haystack.”
The capsule — which has now been placed in a lead-shielded, radiation-blocking container for safety’s sake — is said to now be being verified by defense officials.
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The tiny capsule is being stored overnight in a secure facility in Newman, near to where it was found, but is destined to be transported on to Perth tomorrow.
The discovery of the capsule may come as a surprise to one expert — who suggested this morning that the disappearance was no accident.
Synchrotron Geoscientist Professor Joel Brugger of Monash University Australia had said that “The loss of such a capsule in transit is incredibly unlikely.
“I cannot think of any scenario where this may happen, unless foul play is involved.
“Effective international standards and best practice have been in place for decades, with regular internal and external audits in place.”
The recovery of the capsule by the roadside, however, would appear to suggest that its loss was just the result of misfortune after all.
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