A small radioactive capsule has been found more than three weeks after it went missing in Western Australia while being transported from a Rio Tinto mine to a facility in Perth. The cesium-137 capsule was found under extraordinary circumstances, and WA Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson said in a press conference, “The search crews have quite literally found the needle in the haystack.”
The capsule was reported to have been found two meters (6.5 feet) off the side of the Great Northern Highway by a team from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services. The Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner, Darren Klemm said that the search had spanned 1400km (869.9 miles) and found the capsule when a detection device on a search vehicle went off, revealing radiation.
“I think it was done very well, DFES has done a magnificent job,” East Pilbara Shire President Anthony Middleton said, according to Australia’s ABC News. “To locate such a small item along 1400km of highway is absolutely amazing,” he said.
Middleton and Dawson did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
The capsule, which is used in mining equipment, disappeared sometime between January 11 and January 16 but was not reported as missing until more than a week later. Although the capsule only measured 6mm (.kcm) in diameter and 8mm (.8cm) in height, the loss could have had severe implications if mishandled, leading to dangerously high doses of radiation. Search crews were immediately deployed in what became a frantic race against the clock to find the tiny capsule before it could do any harm.
Dawson said at the press conference that about 100 personnel were involved in the search including both career and volunteer firefighters, WA Police, Health Department personnel, and people from the Australian Defense Force (ADF). The amount of money invested by the government to search for the tiny capsule has not been released, but the Australian government admitted it had been “costly.”
A 20-meter “hot zone” has been set up in the surrounding area where the capsule was found to keep the public safe, and the capsule will be transported to a WA Health Department facility to be examined.
An investigation into how the capsule could have fallen off the truck is underway, and according to ABC News, a fine could be issued to Rio Tinto under the Radiation Safety Act, which has a maximum penalty of $1,000, something Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said is unacceptable. “It shouldn’t have been lost, that’s the first thing,” Albanese told the outlet, adding, “And second, yeah of course that figure is ridiculously low.”
Dawson said the government is now looking into altering the act to include a more severe penalty, but the change would not retrospectively apply to Rio Tinto’s potential mishandling of the capsule. Robertson said at the press conference he would investigate whether the capsule had been appropriately managed, but added, “We have the ability to prosecute under the radiation safety act and we will certainly look at such prosecutions, and we’ve done that in the past.”
Rio Tinto’s Chief Executive of Iron Ore, Simon Trott apologized at the press conference and thanked those involved in the search efforts. “Of course, the simple fact is that this device should never have been lost, we’re sorry that occurred, and we’re sorry for the concern that has caused for the WA community,” he said.
“We need to learn from this so we can put in place additional controls to ensure that this never happens again.”