Mining giant apologizes for lost radioactive capsule in Australia
Safety helmet from Rio Tinto.
Mining giant Rio Tinto says it is working with authorities to try to find a radioactive capsule that went missing in Western Australia this month.
“We are aware that this is clearly a matter of great concern and we apologize for the alarm it has caused,” the company told the BBC.
The case contains a small amount of radioactive cesium-137 which can cause serious illness if touched.
It was lost between the town of Newman and the city of Perth, a distance of about 1,400 km (870 miles).
“Along with the full support of the relevant authorities, we have launched our own investigation to understand how the capsule was lost in transit,” Simon Trott, Rio Tinto’s chief executive, Iron Ore, said in a statement.
“As part of this investigation, we are working closely with the contractor to better understand what went wrong in this case,” he added.
The company said the capsule left its Gudai-Darri mine in Western Australia on January 12. She was reported missing on January 25th.
“Rio Tinto engaged a third party with the appropriate expertise and certification to safely package the device in preparation for off-site shipment prior to receipt at its Perth facility. Before the device leaves the site, a Geiger counter was used to confirm the presence of the capsule in the packaging.”
A Geiger counter is an electronic device used to detect and measure radiation.
State officials have issued a radiation warning in parts of Western Australia.
The small silver capsule used as the sensor is only 6 mm (0.24 in) in diameter and 8 mm long.
However, exposure to trace metals is like “getting 10 x-rays in an hour, to put it in context, and… the amount of natural radiation we get in a year walking around.” said Andrew Robertson, Western Australia’s chief health officer.
The desert state is remote and one of the most sparsely populated places in the country. Only one in five Western Australian residents live outside Perth, the state capital.
However, officials said they are concerned that someone could pick up the capsule without knowing what it is.
“If you come into contact or you’re around, you can either get skin damage, including skin burns… and if you’re around long enough, you can cause what’s called acute radiation sickness and it will take a while ,” Herr added Robertson.
The missing capsule is tiny but is said to contain a “reasonable” amount of radiation
This incident occurred as the company is trying to restore its reputation in Australia after being hit by a backlash against the destruction of sacred Aboriginal rock shelters in Western Australia.
Rio Tinto blasted the 46,000-year-old rock shelters in Juukan Gorge to expand an iron ore mine.
The incident sparked a huge outcry which resulted in several of the company’s top executives resigning.
In September 2020, then-CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques and other senior executives, including the heads of the iron ore and corporate relations departments, announced that they were leaving the company.