Missing radioactive capsule found on side of highway in Western Australia

Click to play video: 'Needle in a haystack: How a pea-sized radioactive capsule was recovered in Australian outback'
Needle in a haystack: How a pea-sized radioactive capsule was recovered in Australian outback
WATCH: Authorities in Australia have done what seemed impossible. They've recovered a tiny radioactive capsule several days after it fell off a truck on a highway in the Australian outback. Eric Sorensen explains – Feb 1, 2023


A pea-sized radioactive capsule was recovered by authorities in Western Australia on Wednesday after it fell from a delivery truck along a 1,400-kilometre transport route last month.

The capsule, which contains a small quantity of radioactive Caesium-137, was found south of the mining town of Newman on the Great Northern Highway. A search vehicle travelling 70 kilometres per hour, as well as various radiation detecting equipment, were used to find the capsule.

Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson called the discovery “extraordinary” and said authorities “quite literally found the needle in the haystack.”

The capsule did not appear to be tampered with and no injuries have been reported.


The multinational mining company Rio Tinto has apologized for losing a small, highly-radioactive capsule along a 1,400-kilometre route in Western Australia.

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The pea-sized capsule is just 6 millimetres in diameter and 8 millimetres long, according to the Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) — but it apparently still packs a radioactive punch.

The authority announced the disappearance of the capsule on Friday, two days after they were notified by Rio Tinto.

It is believed that the tiny capsule, which contains a small quantity of radioactive Caesium-137, fell from a delivery truck during transport from a desert mine site to the city of Perth.

A diagram showing the size of the radioactive capsule. It is 6mm by 8mm.
A diagram showing the size of the radioactive capsule lost by mining giant Rio Tinto in Western Australia. Facebook / Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Services

Australian authorities have been searching the transportation route — roughly the same distance as Ottawa, Ont. to Regina — since they were notified of the disappearance on Jan. 25. Australians have been warned the silver capsule could have unknowingly become lodged in a car tire.

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Emergency services are using specialized radiation detecting equipment to locate the capsule. They said their chances of finding the device are “pretty good,” as per the BBC.

Department of Fire and Emergency Services members search for a radioactive capsule believed to have fallen off a truck being transported on a freight route on the outskirts of Perth, Australia. Department of Fire and Emergency Services / AP

Authorities have said the capsule cannot be weaponized, and if a citizen happens to locate it, they should not touch it under any circumstances and instead call local authorities.

DFES said exposure to the capsule’s substance could cause radiation burns and radiation sickness; coming into contact with the irradiated capsule would deliver the equivalent of receiving 10 X-rays in an hour. Prolonged exposure to any radiation can cause cancer.

The authority said the radioactive substance Caesium-137 is used within gauges for mining operations.

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Rio Tinto, the world’s second-largest metals and mining corporation, said it will conduct an internal investigation into how the capsule became lost.

“We recognize this is clearly very concerning and are sorry for the alarm it has caused in the Western Australian community,” chief executive Simon Trott said in a statement released Sunday. “As well as fully supporting the relevant authorities, we have launched our own investigation to understand how the capsule was lost in transit.”

At the time of its disappearance, the radioactive capsule was being transported by a qualified subcontracted company. Before its transportation, officials confirmed the capsule was on the delivery truck. When the delivery arrived in Perth on Jan. 25, the capsule was no longer there.

“Upon opening the package, it was found that the gauge was broken apart with one of the four mounting bolts missing and the source itself and all screws on the gauge also missing,” wrote DFES in a statement.

Police determined the incident to be an accident and no criminal charges are likely.

This is not the first time Rio Tinto’s reputation has come under fire in Australia. In 2020, the company destroyed 46,000-year-old sacred Aboriginal rock shelters in Western Australia when expanding an iron ore mine.

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With files from The Associated Press

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