Impossibly Tiny Radioactive Capsule Lost in the Australian Outback Is Now Found

Surprisingly the Australian Radioactive Capsule Has Been Found

The Great Northern Highway, along which crews searched for the radioactive capsule. (Photo: Martin Kraft via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Australia is a vast land full of rugged terrain. While beautiful and the home of countless species, this natural landscape has made a daunting setting for an epic search. Last week, workers opened a package from the Rio Tinto mining site in northern Western Australia traveling on a truck to Perth. The package was supposed to contain a pea-sized radioactive capsule used in routine mining activities. Instead, workers found it empty on January 26. An epic six-day search along an 870-mile stretch of the Great Northern Highway began. On Wednesday, February 1, 2023, the tiny capsule was at last found, a true “needle in a haystack” of the outback.

Although some details on the loss of the capsule seem uncertain, the tiny metal piece is among lots of radioactive material that travels daily on the highway, usually with no issues. Only 8 mm long and containing Caesium-137, finding it seemed impossible in the vast Australian wilds. “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 in a news conference on Wednesday. Crews with radioactive detection equipment traveled slowly along the sides of the highway on which the capsule was lost. On Wednesday, shortly before noon, signals led the team to the tiny capsule, slightly battered, on the dirt.

Chief Health Officer and Chair of the Radiological Council Andrew Robertson noted it seems, thankfully, no one was exposed to radiation during the six days of searching. The teams had been concerned the capsule might end up in a car wheel, as the danger was long-term exposure to the same people. The capsule could have emitted harmful radiation for about 300 years as its element slowly decayed. “It does not appear to have moved—it appears to have fallen off the track and landed on the side of the road. It is remote enough that it’s not in any major community so it is unlikely that anybody has been exposed to the capsule,” Robertson said. Investigations are underway to see why and how the capsule was lost in the first place and to prevent future occurrences. However, it appears to be largely no harm, no foul here. Robertson added, “This is a great result for the community of Western Australia.”

A tiny pea-sized radioactive capsule which went missing for over a week in Australia along the Great Northern Highway has at last been found.

The capsule was found 74 kilometers (about 46 miles) south of Newman, Australia, and was verified by serial number.

Surprisingly the Australian Radioactive Capsule Has Been Found

Looking towards the Pilbara region where the capsule was found. (Photo: Yewenyi via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

h/t: [IFL Science]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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