An Australian nuclear authority joins the search for a missing radioactive capsule

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia’s nuclear safety agency said on Tuesday it has joined the search for a small radioactive capsule missing somewhere in the outback, sending a team with portable and vehicle-mounted detection equipment.

Authorities have now been searching for a week for the capsule, which is believed to have fallen from a lorry that traveled 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) in Western Australia. The loss triggered a radioactive alert for large portions of the vast state.

The capsule, part of a scale used to measure the density of iron ore feed, was commissioned by Rio Tinto Ltd (RIO.AX) For a specialized transportation contractor. Rio apologized on Monday for the loss, which occurred sometime in the past two weeks.

The Australian Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection Agency said it was working with the Western Australian government to locate the capsule. She added that the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization also sent specialists in radiation services in addition to detection and imaging devices.

The truck traveled from the Juday Dare mine in Rio, north of Newman, a small town in the remote Kimberley region, to a storage facility on the outskirts of Perth – a distance longer than the length of Great Britain.

State emergency officials on Tuesday issued a new alert to motorists along Australia’s longest highway to exercise caution when approaching search edges, as vehicles carrying radiation detectors travel at slow speeds.

“The original route will take about five days, estimated to be approximately 1,400 kilometers, as crews travel north and south along the Great Northern Highway,” Darrell Ray, an incident controller with the Fire and Emergency Services Department, said in a statement late Monday.

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The gauge was taken from the mine site on January 12th. When it was discharged for inspection on January 25th, the gauge was found broken, with one of its four mounting screws missing, and the gauge screws were also missing.

Authorities suspect that vibrations from the truck caused screws and bolts to loosen, and the capsule fell out of the packaging and then exited the gap in the truck.

The silver capsule, 6 mm in diameter and 8 mm long, contains cesium-137 which emits radiation equal to 10 x-rays per hour.

People have been told to stay at least five meters (16.5 feet) away because exposure could cause radiation burns or radiation sickness, although driving behind the capsule is believed to be relatively low risk, as is taking x-rays.

(Reporting by Melanie Burton in Melbourne); Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Edwina Gibbs

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