The discovery of a small radioactive capsule lost by the side of a remote road in Western Australia it raises many questions, including how it escaped from the layers of radiation-proof packaging loaded onto a moving truck.
It’s one of many puzzling aspects of a case that investigators will examine in the coming weeks as they try to piece together the timeline of the capsule’s movements from January 12, when it was packed for transport, to February 1, when a recovery team found it. next to the road.
The capsule, just 8mm by 6mm, was used in a density gauge fitted to a pipeline at Rio Tinto’s Gudai-Darri iron ore mine to measure the flow of material through the feeder.
Rio Tinto said in a statement on Monday that the capsule was packed for transit to Perth, 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) away, with its presence inside the package confirmed by a Geiger counter before it was transported by a third-party contractor.
Normally, the trip would take more than 12 hours by road, but about two hours later, the capsule exited the vehicle while traveling south and somehow crossed a lane of traffic, ending up 6.5 feet (2 meters) from the vehicle. North side. of the two lane highway.
Lauren Steen, general manager of Radiation Services WA, a consultancy that writes radiation management plans, said industry experts were as baffled as the public when they heard the capsule was missing.
“The whole team was scratching our heads. We couldn’t find out what had happened,” said Steen, whose company was not involved in his disappearance.
“If the source had been placed in a certified package and transported under all the requirements of the code of practice, then it is an extremely unlikely, one in a million event,” he said.
The truck believed to be carrying the capsule arrived in Perth on January 16, four days after it left the Gudai-Darri iron ore mine. But it wasn’t until January 25, when SGS Australia workers went to unpack the meter for inspection, that it was discovered to be missing.
In a statement, SGS Australia said it was contracted by Rio Tinto to package the capsule but had nothing to do with its transport, which was carried out by a “specialist carrier”.
“We perform the contracted service to pack the equipment at the mine site and unpack it after transportation using qualified personnel for our client in accordance with all standards and regulations,” he said.
“The transport of the package, organized by our client and delegated to a specialized carrier, was not within the scope of SGS services. Our staff noticed the loss of the source in our Perth lab upon opening the package and reported this incident immediately.”
The name of the company contracted to transport the package has not been released.
The missing capsule triggered a six-day search along a stretch of the Great Northern Highway. Then on Wednesday morning, a car equipped with special equipment traveling south of the small town of Newman detected a higher radiation reading. Handheld devices were then used to refine the earth-nested capsule.
In Australia, each state has its own laws regarding the handling of radioactive substances and codes of practice that meet the guidelines set out by the Australian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), a government body that works closely with the Agency. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). ) ) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
In Western Australia, the rules are governed by the Radiation Safety Act 1975, which Steen says is long overdue for revision. “It hasn’t been rewritten since the ’70s, so I think that speaks for itself,” he said.
Steen said that over decades, technological advances had made the use of radiation sources inside mining equipment much safer, and because it was safer, the devices were used more frequently. Starting in 2021, more 150 projects were operating in Western Australiathe center of the country’s mining exports, according to the state Chamber of Minerals and Energy.
Under the Radiation Safety Act of 1975, only specially trained and licensed operators can package radioactive substances, but different rules apply to contractors hired to transport them, Steen said.
“Any transport company can transport radioactive material as long as it has the license to do so,” he said.
Under the law, that license can be obtained by attending a one-day course and passing a certified, regulator-approved test.
The licensee must have supervision of a transportation plan submitted to the regulator, but does not have to supervise the trip in person. There are no rules on the type of vehicles used for transportation.
Steen makes it clear that something went wrong, and he hopes the research results will be shared with the radiation community so they can avoid such problems in the future.
Discussion about the need for tougher penalties has already begun: In WA, mishandling of radioactive substances carries a fine of just A$1,000 ($714), a figure described as “ridiculously low” by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. to journalists on Wednesday.
The rules for packing radiation sources depend on the amount of radiation they emit. In some cases, the device could be encased in three layers. In the case of the capsule, the indicator could be considered a layer of protection before it was placed in an “overpack”, a container that was likely bolted shut.
In a statement, DFES said that when the package was opened, it was discovered that the indicator was broken and one of the four mounting bolts was missing. Referring to the pod, the statement added, “the source itself and all the indicator screws were also missing.”
One theory that researchers can examine is whether the indicator broke and the capsule fell out of the overpack through a hole used to secure the lid.
It is expected that it will be several weeks before the Radiological Council submits its report to the WA health minister. Meanwhile, Rio Tinto is conducting its own investigation.
Chief executive 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 the inquiry to apportion blame.
He said he did not know how much the search cost, but that at least 100 people were involved, including police officers, firefighters, the health department and defense forces personnel.
Staff from the National Emergency Management Agency, the Australian Nuclear and Scientific Technology Organization and the Australian Agency for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety also participated.
On Thursday, relieved DFES officials released new images of the capsule being taken to Perth, where it will be kept securely at a facility.
This time, he traveled in a convoy of closed white vehicles, with large stickers warning of the presence of a radioactive substance.
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