How to lose a radioactive capsule? Australian investigators are also surprised


Brisbane, Australia
CNN

A small lost radioactive capsule is found near a highway far to the west Australia It raises many questions – how it survived the layers of radiation-shielding packaging loaded onto the moving truck.

It’s one of several puzzling aspects investigators will examine in the coming weeks as they try to piece together a timeline of the capsule’s movements from Jan. 12, when it was packed for transport, to Feb. 1, when rescue teams found it. On the side of the road.

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

Rio Tinto said in a statement on Monday that the capsule was checked by a Geiger counter before being packaged and transported by a third-party contractor 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) to Perth.

Normally, the journey would take more than 12 hours by road, but within approximately two hours, the capsule exited the vehicle while traveling south and somehow crossed a lane of traffic and ended up two meters (6.5 feet) from the north side. A two-lane highway.

Lauren Stein, general manager of Radiation Services WA, a consultancy that writes radiation management plans, said industry insiders were as confused as the public when they heard the capsule had gone missing.

“The whole team was scratching our heads. We couldn’t figure out what happened,” said Stein, whose company was not involved in the disappearance.

“If the source is kept in a certified package and transported under all the requirements of the code of practice, that is a very unlikely event – one in a million,” he said.

The truck believed to be carrying the capsule arrived at the berth on January 16, four days after departing the Kudai-Dari iron ore mine. But it wasn’t until January 25 when workers from SGS Australia went to open the mani for inspection that it was missing.

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In a statement, SGS Australia said it was hired by Rio Tinto to pack the capsule but had nothing to do with its transport, which was carried out by a “special transporter”.

“We performed the contracted service for our client to package the equipment at the mine site using qualified personnel in compliance with all standards and regulations and unpack it following transportation,” it said.

“Transportation of the package arranged by our customer and provided to a specialized transporter was not within the scope of SGS services. Our staff noticed the package lost its source while opening it at our Perth laboratory and immediately reported the incident.

The name of the company contracted to transport the package has not been disclosed.

The missing capsule sparked a six-day search along a stretch of the Great Northern Highway. Later Wednesday morning, a car equipped with special equipment traveling south of the small town of Newman detected high levels of radiation. The handheld devices were then used to grind on the dirty capsule.

In Australia, each state has its own laws regarding the handling of radioactive materials and codes of practice in accordance with guidelines set by the Australian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), a government body that works closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). ) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

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

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Decades of technological advances have made it much safer to use radiation sources inside mining equipment — and because it’s safer, the devices are used more often, Stein said. By 2021, it’s over 150 projects were operational in Western AustraliaThe center of the country’s mining exports, according to the state’s Chamber of Minerals and Energy.

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

“If any transport company is licensed to transport radioactive materials,” he said.

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

The licensee shall supervise the transport plan submitted to the regulator but shall not personally supervise the journey. There are no rules regarding the type of vehicles used for transportation.

Stein says something went wrong — and hopes the results of the investigation will be shared with the radiation community so they can avoid similar problems in the future.

Debate has already begun over the need for tougher penalties – in WA, the fine for mishandling radioactive material is just A$1,000 ($714) – which Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described as “absurd” to reporters on Wednesday.

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

The rules surrounding packaging radiation sources depend on how much radiation they emit. In some cases, the device can be connected in three layers. For the capsule, the cage may be considered a layer of protection before being placed in the “overpack”, which may be a sealed container.

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In a statement, DFES said that when the package was opened, one of the four mounting bolts was missing and the track was broken. Referring to the capsule, the report added, “All screws on the source and gauge are missing.”

One theory researchers could explore is if the cage broke and the capsule fell from the overpack through a hole used to secure the lid.

The Radiology Council is expected to take several weeks to submit its report to the WA Health Minister. Meanwhile, Rio Tinto is conducting 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 offer was appreciated, but the Government would await the outcome of an investigation into whether to lay blame.

Vehicles carrying the capsule on Thursday

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

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

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

This time, it traveled in a convoy of white vehicles covered with large stickers warning of the presence of a radioactive material.

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