A search team in Australia has found a tiny radioactive capsule that recently fell from a truck on a 1400-kilometer road.
Much like looking for a needle in a haystack, the team spent days combing a highway in Western Australia, conducting a visual search and also using special equipment that can detect radiation.
The cesium-137 capsule, which is just 6 millimeters in diameter and 8 millimeters long, is believed to have fallen from the truck during a recent trip from a desert mine operated by Rio Tinto to a storage facility in the city of Perth.
Local news media reported the capsule was found on Wednesday about 46 miles (74 kilometers) south of Newman on the Great Northern Highway next to the road, a relatively short distance from the mine where its journey began.
Such a capsule is commonly used in density meters for mining work. This particular one reportedly began its journey securely fastened in the truck, but it’s believed vibrations during the long drive — the equivalent of driving from Los Angeles to Portland — caused it to dislodge before slipping through a gap in the vehicle and on the road fell.
Although the incident happened between January 11 and 16, officials only realized the capsule was missing on Wednesday last week.
After the find, Simon Trott, chief executive of mining company Rio Tinto, said he was “incredibly grateful” for the efforts that went into locating the capsule and apologized for the unfortunate episode.
“While recovering the pod is a great testament to the skill and tenacity of the search team, the fact of the matter is that it should never have been lost in the first place,” Trott said. “We take this incident very seriously and are conducting a full and thorough investigation into how it happened.”
When news of the capsule’s disappearance broke, the public was warned to stay away should they come across it. Western Australia’s Chief Health Officer said the capsule put out radiation equivalent to 10 X-rays in an hour. Contact with such a component can cause skin damage, burns, and radiation sickness, while long-term exposure can cause cancer.
The pod was found far from communities and officials are now surveying the site to ensure there is no damage to the immediate area or lasting environmental impact.
Due to the bizarre nature of the incident, officials are also verifying that strict protocols for packaging and transporting the radioactive capsule were properly followed.