In Australia, they lost a tiny radioactive capsule: it can infect everything around it for another 300 years
In Australia, a radioactive capsule, 8 mm by 6 mm in size, no larger than a coin, has gone missing. She is believed to be lost somewhere along a stretch of a vast desert highway in the country's largest state. CNN.
Mining company Rio Tinto issued an apology on January 30, saying it supports the state government's efforts to find a capsule that contains caesium-137, a highly radioactive substance used in mining equipment.
Rio Tinto said it had checked all roads leading to and from the Goodey Darry mine in remote northern Western Australia. The device was located there before the contractor picked it up for a trip south to the state capital of Perth.
Authorities believe the capsule, which emits both gamma and beta rays, fell off the back of a truck that was traveling along the 1400-kilometer section of the Great Northern Highway, a distance longer than the California coastline.
Due to the capsule's tiny size and vast distances, the chances of finding it are slim, authorities warn.
And there are fears that it may have already been carried further away from the search area, creating a radioactive health risk to anyone who encounters it. This risk is potentially dangerous for the next 300 years.
How did she disappear?
The state authorities raised the alarm on January 27, warning residents of the presence of a radioactive spill in the southern part of the state, including in the northeastern suburbs of Perth, the state capital, home to about 2 million people.
According to authorities, the capsule was placed in the bag on January 10. On January 12, she was picked up by a contractor from Rio Tinto's Gudai-Darri mine.
The car spent four days on the road and arrived in Perth on January 16, but was inspected only on January 25, when the loss was discovered.
“On opening the package, it was found that the pressure gauge was broken, one of the four mounting bolts was missing, and the source itself and all the screws on the pressure gauge were also missing,” the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) said.
They believe that the strong vibrations caused by the bumpy roads damaged the package by dislodging the mounting bolt that held it in place.
How dangerous is it?
Experts warn that caesium-137 can cause serious health problems in people who come into contact with it: skin burns from close contact, radiation sickness and a potentially fatal risk of cancer, especially in those who are unknowingly exposed for long periods of time. .
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Radiation Services WA, a radiation protection consultancy company, says staying within one meter of a capsule for an hour will yield about 1,6 millisieverts (mSv), which is about 17 standard chest x-rays.
The company said in a statement that lifting the capsule could cause "serious damage" to your fingers and surrounding tissues.
Ivan Kempson, professor of biophysics at the University of South Australia, said that in the worst case scenario, a curious child would pick up the capsule and put it in their pocket.
“It's rare, but it could happen and has happened before,” Kempson said. “There have been several examples in the past where people have found things like this and suffered from radiation poisoning.”
“We are all constantly exposed to radiation from the things around us and the foods we eat, but right now the main concern is the potential health impact on the person who finds the capsule,” he says.
Norm or exception?
The incident came as a shock to experts, who said that the handling of radioactive materials such as caesium-137 is strictly regulated by protocols for their transportation, storage and disposal.
Rio Tinto said it regularly transports and stores dangerous goods as part of its operations and employs experienced contractors to handle radioactive materials. The tiny capsule was part of a density meter used at the Gooday Darry mine to measure the density of the iron ore fed into the crushing circuit, the statement said.
Radiation Services WA reports that radioactive materials are transported daily across Western Australia without any problems. “In this case, there seems to be a failure in the commonly used control measures,” the report says.
Pradeep Deb, lecturer and radiation safety specialist at Melbourne's RMIT University, said the loss of the capsule was "very unusual" as Australian safety regulations require them to be transported in high security cases.
The name of the logistics company that was used to transport the device has not been released, Rio Tinto said.
What's going on with search?
Authorities are trying to find the device using special radiation detection equipment. The equipment is attached to vehicles that are slowly moving up and down the highway in both directions at a speed of 50 kilometers per hour.
"It will take approximately five days to travel along the original route," DFES said in a January 30 statement.
Dale Bailey, a professor of medical imaging at the University of Sydney, said the low speed is needed to give the equipment time to detect radiation.
"Radiation detectors on moving vehicles can be used to detect radiation above natural levels, but the relatively low amount of radiation at the source means that they will have to 'sweep' the area relatively slowly," he said.
Authorities warned members of the public not to come closer than five meters to the device, while acknowledging that it would be difficult to see from a distance.
“What we don't do is try to find a tiny device without special tools. We use radiation detectors to detect gamma rays,” DFES said.
But there are concerns that the pod may no longer be in the search area - authorities say the pod may have become stuck in another vehicle's tire, which carried it a greater distance. It could also be carried away by wild animals, including birds.
“Imagine if it was, for example, a bird of prey that picks up the capsule and takes it away from the original search area – there are so many uncertainties here and it will create more problems,” said Dave Sweeney, nuclear policy analyst and environmental advocate at the Australian Foundation. nature conservation.
“Obviously this source needs to be found and neutralized, but there are so many variables and we just don’t know what might happen,” he said.
What happens if it is not found?
The half-life of caesium-137 is about 30 years, which means that after three decades the radioactivity of the capsule will be halved, and after 60 years it will be halved again.
At this rate, the capsule could be radioactive for the next 300 years, says Deb from RMIT University.
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“Caesium-137 is usually a sealed source, which means that if it is not broken, it will not contaminate the soil or the environment ... If the capsule is never found, it will not contaminate the surrounding soil and will not transfer radioactivity to the environment,” Deb added.
Kempson of the University of South Australia said that if the capsule is not found in an isolated area, "it is very unlikely that it will have a big impact."
Rio Tinto, one of the world's largest mining giants, operates 17 iron ore mines in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The company's mining activities have been controversial in the past, including the destruction in 2020 of two ancient rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge, prompting an apology and the resignation of then-CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques.
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