International mining giant Rio Tinto has admitted to misplacing a "highly radioactive" object along an 870-mile Western Australian highway, several outlets report. But if it's any consolation, they're very, very sorry.
"We are taking this incident very seriously," Rio Tinto head of iron ore Simon Trott said in a Sunday statement to the media. "We recognize this is clearly very concerning and are sorry for the alarm it has caused in the Western Australian community."
Princess and the Pea
At just eight millimeters in length, the object in question — a tiny "widget," as Bloomberg put it, containing the radioactive isotope caesium-137 — is roughly the size of a pea. All to say: not exactly the easiest thing to recover from an unknown spot on an 870-mile-long stretch of roadway.
"If you dangled a magnet over a haystack," Andrew Stuchbery, head of the Australian National University's department of Nuclear Physics and Accelerator Applications, told Reuters, "it's going to give you more of a chance."
And despite its puny size, this object — which is a component of a larger device that measures the density of iron ore — isn't benign. It emits radiation "equal to ten X-rays per hour," according to Reuters. And while anyone who drives past it won't be hit with too much radiation, overexposure or mishandling could reportedly cause radiation burns or even radioactive sickness.
"It's quite radioactive so if you get close to it, it will stick out," Stuchbery added.
Regardless of the challenges they face in the search for the radioactive capsule, Australian authorities seem to be in good spirits, with emergency services personnel telling the BBC that their chances of success are "pretty good." Noted.
This isn't the only recent Rio Tinto scandal in the area. Back in 2020, the company came under fire for damaging two Aboriginal heritage sites, including a cave in the Juukan Gorge that showed signs of occupation dating back 46,000 years — and had a 4,000-year-old genetic link to its present-day owners. The mining corp said it was "sorry" for that, too.
In any case, we hope that the radioactive pea is discovered before it causes anyone any harm. But we're sure that if it does, a Rio Tinto apology will be very quick to follow.
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