Authorities in Western Australia have warned the general population that a radioactive capsule used as a gauge in a mining operation has been lost on a stretch of road that is about 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) long. The risk to the population is considered minimal, but people need to be warned of what to do in case they see it.
The gauge is tiny. It’s 8 millimeters by 6 millimeters (0.31 inches by 0.24 inches), roughly like two hearing aid batteries stuck together. It was being taken from the town of Newman to the Northeastern suburbs of Perth. Exposure to it for a long time could cause radiation burns or radiation sickness, and if anyone finds it they should immediately alert the authorities. A concern is that the small capsule could have got stuck to a car's wheel.
The capsule was being taken to Perth for repair on January 10, and it arrived there on January 16 and was placed in a secure radiation store. The packaging was then opened on January 25, and it was then that it was discovered that the package had broken; one bolt was missing, and the capsule and all its screws likely dropped out of that hole and were potentially lost on the road between Newman and Perth.
Nuclear densitometry is not used just for mining, but also in archaeology and civil construction. It is unclear which radioactive element was used in this gauge. The Western Australian government's advice on these items mentions cobalt-60 and caesium-137. The isotope radium-226 is also used for this purpose, as it can be used up to 300-meter (984-foot) depths. Radium-226 emits mostly alpha particles, but its decay products can emit also beta particles and gamma rays. While dangerous, none of these elements can be weaponized.
[H/T: ABC News]