Australia mining company Rio Tinto apologizes for losing highly radioactive capsule

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A mining corporation on Sunday apologized for losing a highly radioactive capsule over a 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) stretch of Western Australia, as authorities combed parts of the road looking for the tiny but dangerous substance.

The capsule was part of a device believed to have fallen off a truck while being transported between a desert mine site and the city of Perth on January 10.

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The truck transporting the capsule arrived at a Perth depot on January 16. Emergency services were notified of the missing capsule on January 25.

Western Australia emergency services have called on other Australian states and the federal government for support finding the capsule as they lack equipment. The capsule measures 8 millimeters by 6 millimeters (0.31 inches by 0.24 inches), and people have been warned it could have unknowingly become lodged in their car’s tires.

The caesium 137 ceramic source, commonly used in radiation gauges, emits dangerous amounts of radiation, equivalent of receiving 10 X-rays in an hour. It could cause skin burns and prolonged exposure could cause cancer.

The task, while akin to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, is “not impossible” as searchers are equipped with radiation detectors, said Andrew Stuchbery who runs the department of Nuclear Physics & Accelerator Applications at the Australian National University.

“That’s like if you dangled a magnet over a haystack, it’s going to give you more of a chance,” he said.

“If the source just happened to be lying in the middle of the road you might get lucky...It’s quite radioactive so if you get close to it, it will stick out,” he said.

The gauge was picked up from Rio’s Gudai-Darri mine site on January 12. When it was unpacked for inspection on January 25, the gauge was found broken apart, with one of four mounting bolts missing and screws from the gauge also gone.

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

The chief executive of the mining giant Rio Tinto Iron Ore, Simon Trott, said the company was taking the incident very seriously and apologized for causing public concern.

“We recognize this is clearly very concerning and are sorry for the alarm it has caused in the Western Australian community,” Trott said. "As well as fully supporting the relevant authorities, we have launched our own investigation to understand how the capsule was lost in transit.”

The search has involved people scanning for radiation levels from the device along roads used by the trucks, with authorities indicating the entire 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) route might have to be searched.

Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services publicly announced the capsule had gone missing on Friday, two days after they were notified by Rio Tinto.

Trott said the contractor was qualified to transport the device and it had been confirmed being on board the truck by a Geiger counter prior to leaving the mine.

Police determined the incident to be an accident and no criminal charges are likely.

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