A tiny but dangerously radioactive capsule that fell off a truck along a remote, 870 mile stretch of desert highway in Western Australia last month has been found, authorities said Wednesday.
“It’s a good result, as I’ve said it’s certainly a needle in a haystack that has been found, and I think West Australians can sleep better tonight,” West Australia Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson told reporters.
Authorities scoured hundreds of kilometers of highway in search of the tiny capsule.
It was discovered at the side of a desert highway just south of the town of Newman — near the Outback mine it was transported from, the state’s emergency services commissioner Darren Klemm said.
The six-day hunt came to an end after a search vehicle detected radiation while travelling along the highway, with authorities now working to safely remove the capsule before taking it to a secure location, Klemm said.
Mining giant Rio Tinto had apologized Monday for losing the capsule.
The solid, silver-colored cylinder is smaller than a human fingernail, but authorities said it contains enough Caesium-137 to cause acute radiation sickness.
It disappeared from a truck that drove to the suburbs of Perth from a remote mine near Newman – further than the distance from Paris to Madrid.
“We recognize this is clearly very concerning and are sorry for the alarm it has caused in the Western Australian community,” said Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Simon Trott in a statement sent to Agence France-Presse.
“We have launched our own investigation to understand how the capsule was lost in transit,” he added.
The radioactive capsule, part of a gauge used in the mining industry to measure the density of iron ore, was transported by a certified Rio Tinto contractor, he said.
Authorities warned people to stay at least 16 feet away from the capsule, which emits beta and gamma rays with a radiation level equivalent to receiving 10 X-rays every hour.
“If you have it long enough near you, it could cause what is known as acute radiation sickness,” Western Australia’s chief health officer Andrew Robertson said when the public was first alerted on Friday.
The container it was in collapsed because of the vibrations of the road trip, he said. The capsule apparently fell through the hole left by a bolt that was also lost.
The gauge was originally picked up on January 12 from the Gudai-Darri iron ore mine near Newman and delivered to the Perth suburb of Malaga on January 16, Rio Tinto said.
But the package wasn’t opened until January 25, when the gauge was found “broken apart” with the radioactive capsule missing. State police were informed on the same day.
Officials in high-visibility yellow vests were seen walking along key stretches of the road.
Portable radiation monitors that can be mounted on vehicles were used to detect emissions across a 65 foot radius along the route, Western Australia’s emergency services said.
“We are not trying to find the small capsule by eyesight. The radiation equipment will hopefully lead us to it,” the service’s incident controller, acting superintendent Darryl Ray, said in a statement at the time.