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Radioactive capsule goes missing in Western Australia


Emergency officials in Western Australia on Saturday warned that a tiny, radioactive capsule was on the loose, with a harried hunt underway along a lengthy stretch of highway for what was essentially a toxic needle in a haystack.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services in Western Australia, a largely rural state that makes up the western third of the country, issued a hazardous materials warning Saturday evening, cautioning that the radioactive capsule had been lost while it was being transported from a mine near the town of Newman to a suburb near Perth, the state’s most populous city.

The capsule — which is less than a third of an inch long — went missing somewhere along the more than 800-mile stretch of road between Newman and Perth, the department said. It contains cesium-137, a radioactive material used in gauges for mining, one of the main industries in resource-rich Western Australia.

Despite its small size, the capsule is dangerous, the department warned. “Exposure to this substance could cause radiation burns or radiation sickness,” it said, cautioning people not to touch it or move it if they come across it. Anyone who sees the capsule should stay 5 meters (16 feet) away from it and report it, the department said.

Authorities did not close the road, National Highway 95, over the ordeal, though the emergency department’s incident map showed the entire stretch of road marked in red with a radioactive warning symbol.

Workers involved in the search were employing radiation detectors to try to find the capsule, said Darryl Ray, the acting head of the emergency department. “We are not trying to find the small capsule by eyesight,” he said. “The radiation equipment will hopefully lead us to it.” The equipment can detect radiation across a 65-foot radius, he said, adding that they were waiting for more specialized equipment to enhance the search.

It’s possible the capsule has been missing for a couple of weeks. It departed the mine on Jan. 12 and was thought to have arrived on Jan. 16, but its disappearance was discovered Wednesday when it was missing from the package it was transported in, with the gauge inside “broken apart” with screws and a bolt missing, the department said. Officials believe the capsule fell off the back of a truck, according to the Associated Press.

Specialists are focusing on “strategic sites” along the route the truck took, Ray said, noting they were concentrating on high-population areas near Perth.

Cesium-137, the radioactive material inside the capsule, is used for, among other things, detecting the flow of liquid through pipes and determining the thickness of materials like sheets of metal, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Exposure to the material can cause increased risk of cancer, radiation burns and acute radiation sickness, and potentially death, according to the CDC.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.