The search for Rio Tinto’s toxic capsule, somewhere in Australia


Rio Tinto Plc has lost a tiny radioactive widget in Western Australia on an arid stretch of highway longer than the length of Italy.

Where did it go missing?

A truck arrived at one of Rio Tinto’s giant iron ore mines in Australia’s Pilbara region on January 12 after driving 1 400 kilometers (870 miles) from a transport depot in Perth. It was there to collect a faulty piece of technical equipment — used to measure the density of iron ore — and return it to Perth to be repaired. The device, the size of a milk bottle, contained a tiny radioactive silver widget, cylindrical and less than a centimeter long.

The package containing the device made it back to Perth on January. 16, where it was put in a radiation-proof facility. But when the package was opened on January 25, the device had broken apart and the widget was nowhere to be seen.

How did it go missing?

That’s still something of a mystery. Western Australia police say there’s no evidence of criminal activity (they were quick to point out the capsule can’t be used in weapons). All the screws on the device containing the widget were missing when the package was opened in Perth, so the assumption is that the capsule fell out in transit. Fortunately the road is extremely isolated, so it’s unlikely that anyone will accidentally pick it up. On the other hand, finding a 6mm widget on a road that long makes searching for a needle in a hay stack sound easy.

How are they searching for it?

Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services has sent out a search party to scan the entire length of highway using radiation detectors on the roofs of vehicles. They work at around 50 kms per hour, and the entire search should take around five days. So far, there’s been no update on how the search is going. A spokesman for the department said the federal government had also provided equipment to help track down the missing capsule. “What we’re not doing is trying to find a tiny little device by eyesight,” Superintendent Darryl Ray told media on the weekend.

How dangerous is it? 

Dangerous enough. Western Australia’s Department of Health said it could cause radiation burns or severe illness and warned people not to touch it or pick it up.  Experts said the risk from contamination at a distance by radiation was relatively small, however direct contamination would be more serious.

“There would be initial reddening of the skin or tissue and, in severe cases, ulceration and potentially death of the tissues,” Professor Dale Bailey, a professor of medical imaging science at the University of Sydney, said in a statement. “If swallowed it would potentially cause bleeding in the gut and ulceration which can lead to significant complications.”

What has Rio Tinto said?

Rio Tinto is still on a charm offensive after its reputation took a hammering when it blew up ancient Indigenous rock shelters in Western Australia back in 2020. It was quick to apologise this week. “We are taking this incident very seriously,” Chief Executive Officer Simon Trott said in a statement on the weekend. “We recognise this is clearly very concerning and are sorry for the alarm it has caused in the Western Australian community.”

What has the package handler said?

SGS SA, the Swiss contractor that discovered the capsule was lost, said Rio had hired it to package the device at the mine, and then receive it in Perth, but not actually transport. That was done by an unnamed “specialist transporter,” the company said in a statement Tuesday. It’s helping authorities with the search and recovery.

© 2023 Bloomberg

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