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Resources giant declares ‘radioactive’ recovery effort a ‘success’

Great Northern Highway
Great Northern Highway

A mining multinational celebrated after locating toxic material that went missing in transit.

Rio Tinto applauded a multi-agency incident management team, which spent six days searching for a tiny radioactive capsule that vanished between 10 and 16 January 2023.

Specialists from the Australian Defence Force (ADF), Western Australian Police Force, State Department of Health, Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) WA, Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) found the gauge part containing Caesium-137 about 11am on February 1.

They used a mix of sophisticated equipment, attached to a light vehicle moving at about 70 km/h, and portable detectors to locate the object about 2 metres off the side of the Great Northern Highway at Newman – almost 1200km north of Perth.

The part was lost between 10 and 16 January 2023 while being relocated between the Koodaideri iron ore mine and a Malaga transport depot. The container was placed into storage and the capsule inside, measuring 8mm high and 6mm wide, was only reported missing on January 25.

“Rio Tinto expresses its gratitude to DFES for coordinating the successful search effort to locate a missing capsule lost while in transit from the company’s Gudai-Darri iron ore mine,” a company spokesperson said in a public statement.

“Rio Tinto would also like to thank the specialist search crews from the ADF, ARPANSA and ANSTO as well as all other support agencies for their crucial role in the search and recovery effort.”

The proponent claimed a bolt sheared off the crate housing the capsule, allowing the part to escape and fall out of a Centurion Transport road train. It promised to investigate the logistics provider’s allegations that Rio supplied the crate and pallet, and was ultimately responsible for packaging and insuring the hazardous object.

“We will be assessing whether our processes and protocols, including the use of specialist contractors to package and transport radioactive materials, are appropriate,” Rio iron ore chief executive Simon Trott said in a public statement.

“This sort of incident is extremely rare in our industry, which is why we need to investigate it thoroughly and learn what we can to ensure it does not happen again … the fact is it should never have been lost in the first place, [and] I would like to apologise to the wider community.”

When QMEB enquired whether transit insurance was purchased neither Centurion nor Rio could confirm a valid policy exists. This suggests the package might be uninsured for loss and damage.

“Centurion does not automatically insure freight. You are required to take out your own insurance,” the logistics provider’s website said.

The State Government believes the proponent was “extraordinarily” lucky to recover the capsule.

“When you consider the scope of the search area locating this object was a monumental effort. They have quite literally found the needle in the haystack,” State Emergency Services, Medical Research, Volunteering, Innovation and the Digital Economy Minister Stephen Dawson said at a press conference.

ADF personnel have verified the part using its serial number, set up a 20 metre “hot zone” and sealed the object in a lead container to minimise radiation leaks.

“It will be stored at a secure location at Newman before being transported to a WA Health facility in Perth. Once the capsule has been secured we will survey the site to ensure there is no contamination in the surrounding area,” DFES Commissioner Darren Klemm told reporters.

“In the extremely unlikely circumstance that the capsule leaked we will remediate the area.”

State Chief Health Officer Andy Robertson promised to probe the incident and “prosecute” Radiation Safety Act breaches. The Radiological Council could fine licence holders $1000 per offence.

University of Sydney nuclear medicine physicist Dale Bailey suspects the capsule would only irritate skin, cause radiation burns, or lead to ulcerations.

“The big worry is if something like this was ever ingested and it did the same thing in your gastrointestinal tract,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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