Radioactive 'needle in the haystack' found in Australia as tiny capsule is recovered in the outback

A tiny but highly radioactive capsule that went missing in the Australian outback was found Wednesday after a frantic weeklong search covering an 870-mile stretch of highway.

The potentially deadly capsule, which is smaller than a coin and believed to have fallen off of a truck from a mining company, was discovered by the side of the road as authorities scanned an area almost the size of California.

“The search groups have quite literally found the needle in the haystack,” Western Australia Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson said at a news conference early Wednesday.

Hailing success after what he described as a “monumental challenge,” Dawson said the capsule was found just outside Newman, a town in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.   

The tiny radioactive capsule has been recovered after a frantic weeklong search.
The tiny radioactive capsule has been recovered after a frantic weeklong search. DFES

The radioactive device was believed to have fallen from a truck on Jan. 10 during its lengthy journey from a desert mine site near Newman to a storage facility in Perth.

Emergency services were first notified last Wednesday, officials said, and alerted the public last Friday.

Officials warned against any contact with the dangerous substance and launched a relentless hunt for the round and silver capsule, which measures 6 millimeters in diameter and 8 millimeters long.

The radioactive source of the capsule, Caesium-137, emits potentially fatal amounts of radiation, almost equivalent to receiving 10 X-rays in an hour and prolonged exposure can even cause cancer. It takes Caesium-137 almost 30 years to decay by half.

Mining giant Rio Tinto Iron Ore apologized for losing the radioactive device, and said it was undertaking an internal investigation into how the potentially lethal and radioactive substance, which is commonly used within gauges in mining operations, was lost.

After a search in the Australian outback that was hindered not just by its scope but by fires and floods, according to Dawson, authorities driving a vehicle manned with specialist equipment detected radiation emitted by the capsule.

They then proceeded to use portable detection equipment to locate the capsule.  

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services in Western Australia announced on Twitter that the capsule had been “controlled and contained.”

Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Darren Klemm.
Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Darren Klemm.DFES

“The Australian defense force is currently verifying the capsule using its serial number,” Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Darren Klemm said at the news conference. 

“A 20-meter zone hot-zone has been set up around the capsule,” he said, adding it had been placed in a lead container to shield from radiation.

Dawson said the agencies involved in the operation were now arranging for the safe transportation of the capsule, and that an investigation into why the capsule was lost was ongoing. 

“I do want to emphasize this is an extraordinary result by western Australians and Australians,” Dawson said. 

Western Australia’s Chief Health Officer, Andrew Robertson, said it was unlikely anyone had sustained any injuries as a result of the lost radioactive capsule.

“It does not appear to have moved,” Robertson said at the news conference. “It appears to have fallen off the truck and landed on the side of the road. It is remote enough that it’s not in any major community, so it’s unlikely that anybody has been exposed to the capsule.”

The capsule will be taken to a secure facility in the city of Perth on Thursday, officials said.