How could something so small cause so much trouble? With enough radioactivity, anything’s possible.
That’s the case in Australia, where a tiny radioactive capsule has caused an urgent public health warning. The item, which is roughly the size of a small watch battery, was lost somewhere along the 1,400 kilometer route between Perth and a mine in Pilbara. And officials have warned people to not go near it.
Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency services promised that the capsule can’t be turned into a weapon. But it can do some considerable damage to anyone within its vicinity. Officials said the capsule gives off a “reasonable” amount of radioactivity. Put another way, it’s about the equivalent of getting 10 X-rays in one hour for anyone within one meter of it.
According to ABC News Australia, that’s approximately the same amount of natural radiation your body experiences in a year. Chief Health Officer Andy Robertson said the capsule emits both beta rays and gamma rays so if you have it close to you, you could either end up with skin damage including skin burns.
So how did something so potentially harmful and difficult to find end up out in the wild? It fell off a truck. According to the report, officials believe the capsule got loose from its container when a bolt fell out during the bumpy ride and left a convenient bolt hole for the capsule to escape through.
Radioactive capsules like the one lost in Australia are often used as gauges for mining operations. According to the EPA, nuclear gauges can also be used in other industries like manufacturing and construction for measuring thickness, density and fill levels.
Australian officials are out in force searching for the capsule. Rio Tinto, the mining company responsible for losing the capsule, issued a public apology. But it’s small and the search area is large. So it likely won’t be a quick mission. And with a half-life of 30 years, the tiny capsule could be a big issue for a long time.