How do we lose a radioactive capsule? Australian inspectors are also wondering

Brisbane, Australia

The discovery of a small radioactive capsule missing on the side of a remote highway in Western Australia raises many questions, including how it escaped layers of radiation-proof packaging loaded onto a moving truck.

It’s one of many puzzling aspects of the case that investigators will examine in the coming weeks as they try to piece together a timeline of the capsule’s movement from Jan. 12, when it was packed for shipping, to Feb. 1, when a recovery team They found it, collect it. Road side

The capsule – just 8mm by 6mm – was used in a tube-mounted densitometer at Rio Tinto’s Gudai-Darri iron ore mine to measure material flow through the feeder.

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

Normally, the journey by road would take more than 12 hours, but about two hours later, the capsule dislodged from the vehicle while heading south and somehow crossed a line of traffic before ending up two meters (6.5 feet ) arrived from the north. From the two-lane highway

Lauren Stein, general manager of Radiation Services WA, a consultancy that writes radiation management programs, said industry insiders were as confused as the general public by the capsule’s disappearance.

The whole team was scratching our heads. We couldn’t figure out what happened.

“If the source had been placed in an approved package and transported under all the requirements of the code of practice, then this is a very unlikely event – one in a million,” he said.

The truck, believed to be carrying the capsule, arrived in Perth on January 16, four days after leaving the Derry pit iron ore mine. But it was lost until January 25, when SGS Australia workers went to open the gauge for inspection.

SGS Australia said in a statement that it had been hired by Rio Tinto to pack the capsules, but had nothing to do with its transport, which was carried out by a “specialist carrier”.

“We performed contracted services for packing the equipment at the mine site and unpacking it after shipment using qualified personnel for our client in accordance with all standards and regulations,” the statement said.

Parcel shipping organized by our customer and outsourced to a specialist carrier was not within the scope of SGS services. When opening the package, our personnel noticed that the source was missing in Pratt’s laboratory and immediately reported the incident.

The name of the contracting company for the delivery of this package has not been published.

The missing capsule began a six-day search along the Great Northern Highway. Then on Wednesday morning, a vehicle equipped with special equipment traveling south of the small town of Newman detected higher levels of radiation. Then, manual devices were used to scrape the capsule into the soil.

In Australia, each state has its own laws on the use of radioactive materials and codes of practice that follow guidelines set by the Australian Nuclear and Radiological Safety Agency (ARPANSA), a government body affiliated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). IAEA) has close cooperation. ) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

In Western Australia, the rules are governed by the Radiation Safety Act 1975, which Stein says is long overdue for a review. “It hasn’t been rewritten since the ’70s, so I think that speaks for itself,” he said.

Stein said technological advances over the decades have made it much safer to use radiation sources in mining equipment — and because it was safer, the devices were used more often. According to the state’s Chamber of Minerals and Energy, by 2021, more than 150 projects were in the works in Western Australia, the country’s mining export hub.

Stein said that under the Radiation Safety Act of 1975, only trained and licensed operators can package radioactive material, but different rules apply to contractors hired to transport it.

He said: “Any transport company can transport radioactive materials, provided they have a license to do so.

Under this law, a license can be obtained by attending a one-day course and passing an exam approved and approved by the regulator.

The licensee must supervise the transportation plan submitted to the regulator, but does not have to personally supervise the trip. There are no rules regarding the type of vehicles used for transportation.

Stein makes it clear that a mistake was made—and he hopes that the results of the research will be shared with the radiation community so that they can avoid similar issues in the future.

Debate has begun over the need for tougher penalties – in WA, the misuse of radioactive materials carries a fine of just A$1,000 ($714) – a figure Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described to reporters on Wednesday.

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

The rules for packaging radiation sources depend on the amount of their radiation. In some cases, the device can be enclosed in three layers. In the case of the capsule, the gauge can be considered a protective layer before being placed in an “overpack”, a possibly sealed container.

In a statement, DFES said that when the package was opened, the gauge was broken and one of the four mounting screws was missing. “The source itself and all the screws on the gauge were also missing,” the statement added, referring to the capsule.

One theory that investigators may explore is whether the gauge broke and the capsule slipped out of the package through a hole used to secure the lid.

It is expected to take several weeks for the Radiology Council to submit its report to the WA Health Minister. Meanwhile, Rio Tinto conducts its own investigation.

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

WA Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson said the suggestion was welcomed but the government would await the outcome of the investigation before censure.

Vehicles carrying capsules on Thursday

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

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

On Thursday, relieved DFES officials released new images of the capsule being transported to Perth, where it is safely stored in a facility.

This time, it traveled in a convoy of white enclosed vehicles – with large labels warning of the presence of a radioactive substance.

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