Australian authorities announced on Wednesday that they had discovered a piece of radioactive material that had gone missing.
“Locating this object was a monumental challenge – the search groups have quite literally found the needle in the haystack,” state Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson said at a press conference on Wednesday.
The capsule went missing six days prior to the discovery. It contained radioactive material, Caesium-137, and was absent from a parcel that had been shipped from a mining location in northern Western Australia. People were told not to approach the capsule as it could seriously harm their skin and burn them.
Officials believed that the capsule had dropped off the back of a truck with multiple trailers, known as a road train, during transit. It is around 8 millimeters high and 6 millimeters around — which is as small as a pea.
The capsule was located with special tools designed to detect radiation — and was ultimately found around six-and-a-half feet from the edge of the street.
Specialized groups embarked on a massive search for the item on the highway as Australian officials sent additional people to look for the capsule.
On Monday, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services said tracing over the road train’s path would take five days. On Tuesday, it noted that 660 kilometers of the 1,400-kilometer path had been examined.
Government agencies were included in the search as well, such as the Department of Defence, law enforcement, and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency. The Australian Nuclear and Science Technology Organisation was also in on the search.
“We have essentially found the needle in the haystack,” Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Darren Klemm AFSM said in a statement. “When you consider the challenge of finding an object smaller than a 10-cent coin along a 1400-kilometre stretch of Great Northern Highway, it is a tremendous result. I want to thank everyone involved in the search — we called on a large number of agencies to assist and this was a great example of working together to achieve an outstanding result.”
Western Australia’s Chief Health Officer and Chair of the Radiological Council Dr. Andrew Robertson said the likelihood of someone being harmed by the device was low.
“As I have mentioned previously, to be at risk of radiation exposure you need to be close to the source for a period of time,” Dr. Robertson said. “If you were one metre away from the source for one hour, that would be the equivalent of receiving the radiation dose of 10 X-rays.”
Robertson also said that the capsule probably did not pollute the dirt around it.
“It’s encased in stainless steel, so it’s unlikely that, unless there’s been substantial damage to the actual source itself, which is unlikely from a fall from the back of a truck, that there will be any contamination in the area,” he said.
He is looking into how it went missing and will deliver a report on it.