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Search ends as radioactive capsule found in the Pilbara

Search ends as radioactive capsule found in the Pilbara

Emergency services have found a tiny radioactive capsule near Newman, Western Australia, ending a large-scale interagency search for the missing object and leading to widespread relief.

The operation, led by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services, spanned 1,400 kilometres from the outback to metropolitan Perth and yielded success in just seven days.

The tiny radioactive capsule – 8-millimetres high by 6-millimetres round – was located two-metres off the northbound roadside edge of Great Northern Highway at 11 am last week (WST).

It was discovered by a vehicle search crew which was using specialised radiation equipment.

The capsule has been safely recovered and is now being securely transported in a lead container to Newman for secure storage overnight before being taken to a WA Health facility in Perth.

Fire and emergency services commissioner Darren Klemm AFSM commended the extraordinary efforts of all agencies and personnel involved in the operation.

“We have essentially found the needle in the haystack,” Klemm said. “When you consider the challenge of finding an object smaller than a 10-cent coin along a 1400-kilometre stretch of Great Northern Highway, it is a tremendous result.

“I want to thank everyone involved in the search – we called on a large number of agencies to assist and this was a great example of working together to achieve an outstanding result.”

Though the discovery of the capsule is the best-case outcome in the situation, questions remain about the potential environmental impact caused by the incident.

Western Australia’s chief health officer and chair of the Radiological Council Dr Andrew Robertson said the chances of anyone being contaminated by the source were extremely remote.

“As I have mentioned previously, to be at risk of radiation exposure you need to be close to the source for a period of time,” Dr Robertson said. “If you were one metre away from the source for one hour, that would be the equivalent of receiving the radiation dose of 10 X-rays.”

Rio Tinto expressed its gratitude to Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services for coordinating the successful search effort to locate a missing capsule lost while in transit from the company’s Gudai-Darri iron ore mine in the Pilbara, Western Australia.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Simon Trott said, “While the recovery of the capsule is a great testament to the skill and tenacity of the search team, the fact is it should never have been lost in the first place. I’d like to apologise to the wider community of Western Australia for the concern it has generated.

“We are taking this incident very seriously and are undertaking a full and thorough investigation into how it happened.

“This sort of incident is extremely rare in our industry, which is why we need to investigate it thoroughly and learn what we can to ensure it doesn’t happen again. As part of our investigation, we will be assessing whether our processes and protocols, including the use of specialist contractors to package and transport radioactive materials, are appropriate.”

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