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Mining giant ‘sorry’ over lost radioactive capsule in Australia

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 recognise this is clearly very concerning and are sorry for the alarm it has caused,” the firm told the BBC.

The casing contains a small quantity of radioactive Caesium-137, which could cause serious illness if touched.

It was lost between the town of Newman and the city of Perth, a distance of roughly 1,400km (870 miles).

“As well as fully supporting the relevant authorities, we have launched our own investigation to understand how the capsule was lost in transit,” Rio Tinto’s Iron Ore chief executive Simon Trott said in a statement.

“As part of this investigation we are working closely with the contractor to better understand what went wrong in this instance,” he added.

The company said the capsule left its Gudai-Darri mine in Western Australia on 12 January. It was reported missing on 25 January.

“Rio Tinto engaged a third-party contractor, with appropriate expertise and certification, to safely package the device in preparation for transport off-site ahead of receipt at their facility in Perth. Prior to the device leaving the site, a Geiger counter was used to confirm the presence of the capsule inside the package.”

A Geiger counter is an electronic device used for detecting and measuring radiation.

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State officials have issued a radiation alert across part of Western Australia.

The small, silver capsule, used as a sensor, is just 6mm (0.24 inches) in diameter and 8mm long.

However, exposure to trace quantities of the metal is like “receiving 10 x-rays in an hour, just to put it in context, and… the amount of natural radiation we would receive in a year, just by walking around,” said Western Australia’s chief health officer Andrew Robertson.

The state’s desert is remote and one of the least populated places in the country. Only one in five of Western Australia’s population lives outside of Perth, the state’s capital.

However, officials say they are concerned that someone could pick up the capsule, not knowing what it is.

“If you have contact or have it close to you, you could either end up with with skin damage, including skin burns… and if you have it long enough near you, you could cause what is called acute radiation sickness, and that will take a period of time,” Mr Robertson added.

An illustration showing the size of the capsule
The missing capsule is tiny but said to contain a “reasonable” amount of radiation

This incident comes as the company is trying to repair its reputation in Australia after it was hit by a backlash for destroying sacred Aboriginal rock shelters in Western Australia.

Rio Tinto blasted the 46,000-year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge to expand an iron ore mine.

The incident sparked a major outcry that led to several of the company’s top bosses standing down.

In September 2020, then-chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques and other senior executives, including the heads of its iron ore and corporate relations divisions, said they would leave the company.

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