A small, round capsule containing radiative isotope Caesium-137 that went missing last week was found Wednesday along the Great Northern Highway near Newman in Western Australia. Photo courtesy of Department of Fire and Emergency Services WA/Facebook
Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Australian authorities said Wednesday that a radioactive capsule that fell off the back of a truck last week while in transit has been found.
Officials in Western Australia made the announcement during a press conference, stating the small, round capsule, which contains radiative isotope Caesium-137, was found shortly after 11 a.m. Wednesday after authorities scoured hundreds of miles of highway.
"When you consider the scope of the research area, locating this object was a monumental challenge. The search groups have quite literally found the needle in the haystack," Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson said.
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services had said the capsule, which was part of a gauge, was packaged for repair on Jan. 10 and then sent by truck the next day from mining company Rio Tinto's mine site near Newman to its north-eastern Perth suburb location some 850 miles away.
The package arrived Jan. 16, but was only unpacked Wednesday, with officials discovered the capsule was missing and launched the search for it along the Great Northern Highway, believing it fell off the truck sometime between Jan. 11-14.
Members of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization with DEFS personnel found the capsule Wednesday lying about 6 feet off the highway near its departing location of Newman, DFES Commissioner Darren Klemm said.
He said the capsule, which is smaller than a 10-cent Australian coin, was found by a vehicle traveling the highway at about 40 mph when specialized detection equipment registered radiation it was emitting.
The Department of Health for Western Australia said in a statement that the capsule has been safely recovered and is being transported in a lead container to Newman for secure storage overnight before being taken to a health facility in Perth the following day.
Klemm added that the area where the capsule was found will be surveyed to ensure it has not been contaminated by radiation.
Officials had warned the public about the capsule as exposure to Caesium-137 can increase the chances of cancer. Exposure to a large amount may cause burns, acute radiation sickness and even death, they said.
Though officials had said fears were low, they were concerned someone may find the capsule by the side of the road and take it with them.
Dr. Andrew Robertson, chief health officer and radiological council chair, told reporters Wednesday that they are not aware of any related injuries.
"It does not appear to have moved. It appears to have fallen off the truck and landed on the side of the road," he said. "It's remote enough that it is not in any major community so it is unlike that anybody's been exposed to the capsule."
An investigation has been launched into the circumstances that led to the capsule going missing, and will take weeks to complete, he added.
"We have, obviously, ability to prosecute under the radiation safety act and we will certainly look at such prosecutions," he said.