Four Thursdays ago, the acting director of Western Australian Department of Health, Simon Towler, publicly revealed that a canister the size of a nine kilogram barbecue gas bottle containing radioactive materials (beryllium and americium) had been lost somewhere between Perth and Dampier.

Towler announced on 21 December that the canister could by lying on the side of the road. That was the bad news. The good news was that there was no evidence it been stolen.

Nearly a month later the radioactive canister remains at large. The interested parties – the WA government, which regulates the movement of the radioactive materials in Western Australia; Schlumberger, the mining company the material was destined for; and Toll, the transport company moving the goods – must be thankful for the lack of media interest in this story, in part because of the threat posed by the canister – it emits radiation.

Dr Andrew Robertson, chief health officer for the Western Australia Department of Health, told Crikey the protective canister is not easy to access. It requires specialist equipment to open, but admitted “there is low radiation coming off the container. Six days continuous exposure standing within one metre would be roughly equivalent with what you’d get from a chest X-ray.” To suffer any serious contamination “you’d have to be in close proximity for a long period.” Needless to say, if the canister is opened without the appropriate protections the health consequences will be dire.

The radioactive content is used in mining exploration to determine rock porosity in a process known as “neutron logging”. It’s not a new process, having been around for 50 years, nor is it unusual for radioactive material to be transported by commercial carriers, with 8000 to 10,000 such deliveries being made in Australia each year. Robertson added that losing such a canister was a “rare occurrence”.

Crikey understands the “fell-off-the-back-of-a-truck” scenario is unlikely. More likely is that the canister is sitting in a warehouse or depot somewhere, wearing the wrong paperwork.

Given that some of those depots cover ten hectares, nobody – including the PR company handling the case for Schlumberger – is prepared to speculate on when it will be found. “It could be ten minutes, ten day, or ten months,” one source told Crikey. There must be a few warehouse managers hoping the canister isn’t sitting quietly somewhere near their desk. 

And if it’s still possible to lose small amounts of radioactive material, what does this suggest about Australia’s readiness for a full-scale nuclear energy industry?

Peter Fray

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