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How do you lose a radioactive capsule? Australian researchers wonder too

2023-02-02T10:06:05.882Z


In Australia, each state in the country has its own laws regarding the handling of radioactive substances.


This is how they found the dangerous radioactive capsule lost in Australia 0:53

Brisbane, Australia (CNN) --

The discovery of a tiny radioactive capsule lost along a remote road in Western Australia raises many questions, including how it escaped the layers of radiation-proof packaging aboard a moving truck.

It's one of many puzzling aspects of a case that investigators will examine in the coming weeks as they try to piece together the timeline of the capsule's movements from January 12, when it was packed for transport, to February 1, when a recovery team found her on the side of the road.

Search teams found a missing radioactive capsule by the side of the road in the state of Western Australia on Wednesday.

(Western Australia Department of Fire and Emergency Services)

The capsule, just 8mm by 6mm, was used in a density gauge fitted to a pipeline at Rio Tinto's Gudai-Darri iron ore mine to measure the flow of material through the feeder.

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Rio Tinto said in a statement on Monday that the capsule was packed for transit to Perth, 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) away, with its presence inside the package confirmed by a Geiger counter before it was transported by a third-party contractor.

Normally, the trip would take more than 12 hours by road, but about two hours later, the capsule exited the vehicle while traveling south, somehow crossing a lane of traffic, ending up two meters (6.5 feet) away. on the north side of the two-lane highway.

Lauren Steen, general manager of Radiation Services WA, a consultancy that writes radiation management plans, said industry experts were as baffled as the public when they heard the capsule was missing.

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These were the dangers of the radioactive capsule found in Australia 2:33

“The whole team was scratching their heads.

We couldn't find out what had happened,” said Steen, whose company was not involved in his disappearance.

“If the source was placed in a certified package and transported under all the requirements of the code of practice, then it is an extremely unlikely, one in a million event,” he said.

How was the capsule lost?

The truck believed to be carrying the capsule arrived in Perth on January 16, four days after it left the Gudai-Darri iron ore mine.

But it wasn't until January 25, when SGS Australia workers went to unpack the meter for inspection, that it was discovered to be missing.

In a statement, SGS Australia said it had been contracted by Rio Tinto to package the capsule, but had nothing to do with its transport, which was carried out by a "specialist carrier".

The capsule was the size of the tip of a pen.

(Western Australia Department of Fire and Emergency Services)

“We perform the contracted service to pack the equipment at the mine site and unpack it after transportation using qualified personnel for our client in accordance with all standards and regulations,” he said.

“The transport of the package, organized by our client and delegated to a specialized carrier, was not within the scope of SGS services.

Our staff noticed the loss of the source in our Perth lab upon opening the package and reported this incident immediately."

The name of the company hired to transport the package has not been disclosed.

The missing capsule triggered a six-day search along a stretch of the Great Northern Highway.

Then on Wednesday morning, a car equipped with special equipment traveling south of the small town of Newman detected a higher radiation reading.

Later handheld devices were used to refine the ground-nested capsule.

What are the rules for moving radioactive substances?

In Australia, each state has its own laws regarding the handling of radioactive substances and codes of practice that meet the guidelines set out by the Australian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), a government body that works closely with the Agency. International Atomic Energy Organization (IAEA) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

In Western Australia, the rules are governed by the Radiation Safety Act 1975, which Steen says has been out of date for some time.

“It hasn't been rewritten since the '70s, so I think that speaks for itself,” she said.

Steen said that technological advances for decades had made the use of radiation sources inside mining equipment much safer, and because it was safer, the devices were used more frequently.

As of 2021, more than 150 projects were operating in Western Australia, the hub of the country's mineral exports, according to the state's Chamber of Minerals and Energy.

Under the Radiation Safety Act of 1975, only specially trained and licensed operators can package radioactive substances, but different rules apply to contractors contracted to transport them, Steen said.

"Any transport company can transport radioactive material as long as it has the license to do so," he said.

Under the law, that license can be obtained by attending a one-day course and passing a certified, regulator-approved test.

The licensee must have supervision of a transportation plan submitted to the regulator, but does not have to supervise the trip in person.

There are no rules on the type of vehicles used for transportation.

Steen makes it clear that something went wrong, and he hopes the research results will be shared with the radiation community so they can prevent such problems in the future.

Discussion about the need for tougher penalties has already begun: In Western Australia, mishandling of radioactive substances carries a fine of just A$1,000 (US$714), a figure described as "ridiculously low" by the Australian Prime Minister. , Anthony Albanese, to reporters on Wednesday.

At least 100 people, including police officers and firefighters, joined the search for the capsule.

(Department of Fire and Emergency Services/AAP/Reuters)

Did some missing bolts allow the capsule to escape?

The rules for packing radiation sources depend on the amount of radiation they emit.

In some cases, the device could be encased in three layers.

In the case of the capsule, the indicator could be considered a layer of protection before it was placed in an "overpack", a container that was likely bolted shut.

In a statement, DFES said that when the package was opened, the indicator was found to be broken and one of the four mounting bolts was missing.

Referring to the pod, the statement added, "the source itself and all the indicator screws were also missing."

One theory that investigators can examine is whether the indicator broke and the capsule fell out of the overpack through a hole used to secure the lid.

It is expected that it will be several weeks before the Radiological Council submits its report to the Western Australian health minister.

Meanwhile, Rio Tinto is conducting its own investigation.

CEO Simon Trott said the company would be willing to reimburse the government for costs associated with the search, if requested.

Western Australia's Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson said the offer was appreciated but the government would await the outcome of the inquiry to apportion blame.

He said he did not know how much the search cost but that at least 100 people were involved including police, firefighters, health department personnel and defense forces.

Staff from the National Emergency Management Agency, the Australian Nuclear and Scientific Technology Organization and the Australian Agency for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety also participated.

On Thursday, relieved DFES officials released new images of the capsule being taken to Perth, where it will be kept securely at a facility.

This time, he was traveling in a convoy of white enclosed vehicles – with large stickers warning of the presence of a radioactive substance.

Radiation

Source: cnnespanol

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