A top official from Australian mining company Rio Tinto has apologised after losing a small radioactive capsule somewhere in Western Australia. Rio Tinto said the missing capsule was lost by a contractor who was transporting it to Perth. A search is now underway to locate the capsule.
Emergency WA has declared a general hazmat warning for the contractor’s entire travel path. This is from the Pilbara region in the northern parts of Western Australia, to the Perth metropolitan area, which stretches over 1,000 kilometres. It said the safety risks from the capsule are “relatively low”, but could still cause radiation burns or sickness if a person comes into contact with it.
What is it?
The misplaced capsule contains a radioactive substance called Caesium 137, which is used in mining operations. The lost capsule is tiny. It’s smaller than a five-cent coin and is round and silver. Emergency WA says if you see something that could be the capsule, you should stay at least five metres away and not touch it. Radioactive materials can pose a safety risk when there is high exposure to radiation. Exposure to this capsule has been likened to receiving 10 x-rays in an hour.
How was it lost?
The capsule left one of Rio Tinto’s WA mines on 12 January with a contractor, who was hired to take the package from the mine to their storage facility in Perth’s suburbs. The package arrived and was stored in the secure radiation facility four days later. However, it was discovered on 25 January that the package was broken apart, and the capsule was missing.
Rio Tinto Iron Ore CEO Simon Trott apologised for the alarm that the missing capsule has caused Western Australians, saying the incident is “clearly very concerning”. Trott said that Rio Tinto had launched its own investigation into the incident and was working with the contractor to “better understand what went wrong”. He also said the contractor that lost the capsule had “appropriate expertise and certification”.
The search effort
Rio Tinto has said they’ve inspected all areas of the mining site, including access roads to the mine, where the capsule had been. The WA Government announced a search effort for the capsule on Friday. This includes inspecting key areas of the route and combing roads and other parts of the search zone.