A small but highly radioactive capsule that went missing in the Australian outback was found on Wednesday after a frantic week-long search that covered an 870-mile stretch of road.
The potentially deadly capsule, which is smaller than a quarter and believed to have fallen from a mining company truck, was discovered on the side of the road as authorities scanned an area nearly the size of California.
“Search parties have literally found the needle in the haystack,” Western Australia’s Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson told a news conference. Press conference early Wednesday.
Hailing the success after what he described as a “monumental challenge”, Dawson said the capsule was found on the outskirts of Newman, a town in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
The radioactive device is believed to have fallen from a truck on January 10 during its long journey from a desert mine near Newman to a storage facility in Perth.
Emergency services were first notified last Wednesday, authorities said, and alerted the public last Friday.
Officials warned against any contact with the dangerous substance and launched a relentless search for the round, silver capsule, which measures 6 millimeters in diameter and 8 millimeters long.
The capsule’s radioactive source, Cesium-137, emits potentially deadly amounts of radiation, nearly equivalent to receiving 10 X-rays in an hour, and prolonged exposure can even cause cancer. Cesium-137 takes nearly 30 years to break down in half.
Mining giant Rio Tinto Iron Ore has apologized for losing the radioactive device and said it was conducting an internal investigation into how the potentially lethal, radioactive substance, which is commonly used inside gauges in mining operations, was lost.
After a search of the Australian outback that was hampered not only by its range but also by fire and flooding, according to Dawson, authorities driving a manned vehicle with specialized equipment detected the radiation emitted by the capsule.
They then proceeded to use portable detection equipment to locate the capsule.
The Western Australia Department of Fire and Emergency Services announced on Twitter that the capsule had been “controlled and contained”.
“The Australian Defense Force is verifying the capsule using its serial number,” Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Darren Klemm said at the news conference.
“A 20-meter hot zone has been established around the capsule,” he said, adding that it had been placed in a lead container to shield it from radiation.
Dawson said the agencies involved in the operation were now arranging for the safe transport of the capsule and an investigation into why the capsule was lost was ongoing.
“I want to emphasize that this is an extraordinary result from Western Australians and Aussies,” Dawson said.
Western Australia’s director of health, Andrew Robertson, said it is unlikely anyone suffered injuries as a result of the loss of the radioactive capsule.
“It doesn’t appear to have moved,” Robertson said at the news conference. “He appears to have fallen off the truck and landed on the side of the road. He’s remote enough not to be in any major communities, so it’s unlikely anyone was exposed to the pod.”
The capsule will be taken to a secure facility in the city of Perth on Thursday, authorities said.