Somewhere in the middle of nowhere: Australia and the search for the missing radiation capsule

A truck chugs along the highway in the seemingly endless expanses of the Australian outback.

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere: Australia and the search for the missing radiation capsule

A truck chugs along the highway in the seemingly endless expanses of the Australian outback. Its start: a mine near the 5,000-strong mining town of Newman. His destination: Malaga, a suburb of the metropolis Perth. At some point and somewhere on the 1400-kilometer route, it jerks. Maybe a pothole? The driver probably thinks nothing of it, after all he is steering a truck on the highway through the middle of the desert. What he does not notice, however, is that he has lost something. A tiny metal cylinder, barely the size of a dime. Two weeks later, it feels like half the country is looking for it, media around the world are reporting. Because the capsule is highly radioactive - and therefore potentially deadly.

What reads like the blurb of a Three Question Mark episode actually happened.

Originally, the small cylinder was part of a gauge used to determine the density of iron ore. According to the authorities, this device was deposited in a closed wooden box that was bolted to a pallet, which in turn was stowed on the open loading area of ​​the truck (English: flatbed truck). In the end, that obviously helped: nothing.

According to the civil protection authority, the inconspicuous capsule contains cesium-137. If you stay less than a meter from the capsule for an hour, you could just as well have yourself ten x-rays in a row. If you stand next to the capsule for longer, you risk skin burns and, in the worst case, cancer. If someone discovers a radioactive needle in a haystack, the motto is: keep your distance! Five meters at least, according to Andrew Robertson, chief of the Western Australian health authority.

However, it is at least unlikely that someone who is not specifically looking for it (and is very lucky) will notice the capsule. The desert in the west of the continent is one of the most sparsely populated areas in Australia - only one in five residents of the state lives outside of Perth. Not only that the capsule measures just six by eight millimeters and has disappeared somewhere at a distance the length of Hamburg-Venice. It is still unclear when the capsule became independent. Sometime between January 10th and 16th – that was the “precise” figure at times. The lorry is now said to have left the Gudai Darri mine on January 12, the BBC reports.

The mine operator apparently only recently found out that the dangerous cargo went missing in the first place. On January 25, the crate was inspected for the first time since its arrival in Perth - but the mishap was perhaps more than two weeks ago. Until then, neither the Australian-British mine operator Rio Tinto nor the authorities allegedly knew. It was only when the wooden box was opened that it was noticed that the sensor had "broken apart," Robertson told a local radio station, according to a New York Times report. "He was literally falling to pieces."

And then? Yes, then the great search began. Because, unsurprisingly, it was unsuccessful, it went public. Shortly thereafter, the authorities called out a radiation alert for large parts of the state.

It is still unclear how this could have happened. Even the most plausible theory to date should be treated with caution. According to this, a screw in the box could have been loosened by a vibration, the device could have shattered and the capsule could then have rolled through the hole onto the loading area of ​​​​the truck - from where it fell down again. That's a lot, but it's the only real explanation so far. However, these knives are "designed to be robust and to be used in industrial environments where they are exposed to the elements and vibration," Robertson said at a news conference on Saturday. "To be honest, we're still scratching our heads," Lauren Steen, chief executive officer of Radiation Services, told ABC News.

There could have been better times for a scandal for Rio Tinto. The Australian public has been in a bad mood after the company blasted two 46,000-year-old sacred Aboriginal rock niches in 2020 to expand the Juukan Gorge iron mine. Several top managers, including the CEO, resigned at the time in the subsequent wave of outrage

"We are aware that this is of great concern and we apologize for the concern this has caused," Rio Tinto said on Monday, according to the BBC. The mining giant, which posted annual sales of more than 58 billion euros in 2021, not only supports the authorities – it has launched its own investigation. However, a third party "with the appropriate expertise and certifications" has been commissioned to ensure safe packaging and transport. The capsule was still there when it left the mine - after all, the radioactivity of the charge had been proven beyond a doubt using a Geiger counter.


All you know with absolute certainty is that the capsule is gone. A multi-agency task force is currently combing the search area with special equipment. "We're not trying to find a tiny device with the naked eye," said Darryl Ray of Western Australia Civil Protection. Vehicle-mounted detectors are used, which can detect increased radiation within a radius of 20 meters. For five days, according to the BBC, they are to follow the route in both directions at approx. drive at 50 km/h. At the same time, photos show how emergency services in safety vests walk along the Great Northern Highway. The search operation is likely to drag on for weeks - if the cylinder has not long since looked for the next ride in the tire tread of any vehicle. Until then, a suggestion for the future: A GPS transmitter is available on the Internet from ten euros (15 Australian dollars). Maybe that would be worth investing in - at least for potentially lethal charges. Surely it can be assembled somehow?

Sources: "New York Times"; "Washington Post"; BBC; "ABC News"; Press Release Department of Health Western Australia