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Missing radioactive capsule found on remote road in Australia

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN

Authorities scanning a remote Australian highway for a tiny missing radioactive capsule have found it by the roadside, after a challenging search likened to trying to find a needle in a haystack.

State emergency authorities announced the discovery on Wednesday afternoon, six days after the capsule was discovered missing from a package sent hundreds of kilometers from a mining site in northern Western Australia to the capital Perth in the south.

“Locating this object was a monumental challenge — the search groups have quite literally found the needle in the haystack,” state Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson said in a news conference Wednesday.

Authorities believe the capsule, containing Caesium-137, a highly radioactive substance, somehow fell off the back of a truck as it was being transported 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) along the Great Northern Highway.

The capsule’s disappearance sparked a massive search of the highway with specialized radiation detection units — and prompted warnings to the public not to approach the capsule, which could cause serious burns on contact with skin.

Giving details of the find, authorities said the missing capsule was detected at 11:13 a.m. local time Wednesday, two meters from the road just south of the small town of Newman by crews using radiation detection equipment.

Officials said a 20-meter exclusion zone had been set up around the capsule, and it would be transferred to a lead container before being taken to a security facility in Newman.

On Thursday it would start its journey south again — this time to a health department facility in Perth.

Chief Health Officer Andrew Robertson said it doesn’t appear that anyone was exposed to the capsule’s radiation during the time it was missing.

“It does not appear to have moved — it appears to have fallen off the track and landed on the side of the road. It is remote enough that it’s not in any major community so it is unlikely that anybody has been exposed to the capsule,” he said.

How did it happen?

State authorities raised the alarm on Friday, alerting residents to the presence of a radioactive spill across a southern swathe of the state, including in the northeastern suburbs of Perth, home to about 2 million people.

According to authorities, the capsule was placed inside a package on January 10 and collected from Rio Tinto’s Gudai-Darri mine site by a contractor on January 12.

The vehicle spent four days on the road and arrived in Perth on January 16 but it was only unloaded for inspection on January 25 — when it was discovered the capsule was missing.

The incident came as a shock to experts who said that handling of radioactive materials like Caesium-137 is highly regulated with strict protocols for its transport, storage and disposal.

Mining giant Rio Tinto, which had been using the device in a gauge at its Gudai-Darri iron ore mine, said it regularly transports and stores dangerous goods as part of its business and hires expert contractors to handle radioactive materials.

Radiation Services WA says radioactive substances are transported throughout Western Australia on a daily basis without any issues.

“In this case, there seems to be a failure of the control measures typically implemented,” it said in a statement, adding that it had nothing to do with the capsule’s loss.

Robertson, the chief health officer, is investigating the capsule’s disappearance and will submit a report to the health minister in the coming weeks.

Dawson, the emergency services minister, said the capsule’s recovery was an “extraordinary result.”

“I think West Australians can sleep better tonight,” he added.

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