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Missing in Transit: Caesium 138

Press Release from Nuclear Free Local Authorities on the Caesium-138 incident in Australia........

Following news that a radioactive Caesium-138 capsule was lost whilst in transit in the deserts of Western Australia, the UK/Ireland Nuclear Free Local Authorities have written to mining conglomerate Rio Tinto, urging company officials to publish their findings on where fault for the loss lies and to fully recompense state authorities for the cost of the capsule’s recovery.

The Office of Nuclear Regulation is responsible for oversight of operators transporting nuclear materials in the UK; the Chief Nuclear Inspector’s report from October 2022 recorded 69 incidents related to nuclear transport in the reporting period, two of which involved lost radioactive packages. Councillor Lawrence O’Neill, Chair of the NFLA Steering Committee, said: “Western Australia may seem a long way away, but the NFLA is concerned at the risks posed by the transit of radioactive materials wherever it may occur. In the Australian and UK incidents the packages were soon recovered, but there is always a potential danger if members of the public inadvertently come into contact with these materials and we are keen to discover if there is anything that can be learned from this high-profile incident that may help improve safety procedures in the UK”.

Richard Bramhall, of the Low-Level Radiation Campaign, told the NFLA: “This issue concerns a purely manmade substance created for a particular purpose – powering a density gauge. 138-Caesium is quite nasty in its own way since it has a short half-life, meaning that it would deliver a very large dose of radiation in a short time. As a beta emitter it would be harmful to a person who kept it in close proximity to their body, but if swallowed it would potentially be fatal. “The Caesium-138 source that powered the gauge would become less and less radioactive, and this may be why the gauge was being moved. The company is to be criticised for appalling practice since the gauge itself came apart and the packaging came apart and the vehicle was inadequate to contain the outcome of those failures. What else might be inadvertently lost with what risks? An inquiry into their transport standards seems to be indicated but from a radiological standpoint everyone seems to have acted responsibly.”

Marianne Birkby, of the campaign Radiation Free Lakeland, added: “Although this rare incident involved the transportation of Caesium-138 in Western Australia, you do not have to travel so far to find radioactive Caesium. Whilst the British media was quick to offer comprehensive coverage of the Rio Tinto incident, they have sadly been far more reticent to shine a light on the contamination that still afflicts Cumbrian beaches from historic nuclear operations at Sellafield. “Samples from beaches we have taken recently were examined by a professional laboratory in the United States, and Caesium-134 was found to be present. This was produced in a reactor about eight years ago. Sellafield continues to discharge a cocktail of radioactive wastes down the pipeline to the Irish Sea – this alongside “historic” discharge is cumulative and is already presents too much of a burden on Cumbria’s health. Beach users are not told of the dangers of radioactive wastes – this is nothing short of criminal.”

Ends://… Notes to Editors Please direct enquiries to Richard Outram, NFLA Secretary, by email to The letter dated 8 February and sent to Rio Tinto executives reads: Mr Jean-Sebastien Jacques, Chief Executive, Rio Tinto PLC Mr Simon Trott, Chief Executive, Iron Ore, Rio Tinto PLC Dear Mr Jacques and Mr Trott, Re. Lessons learned from the loss of Rio Tinto’s Caesium-138 capsule in Western Australia I am writing to you, as Chair of the UK/Ireland Nuclear Free Local Authorities, to notify you of our interest and concern on hearing of the recent loss of one of your company’s Caesium-138 radioactive capsules whilst in transit from the Gudai-Darri Mine to Perth, and our relief that thanks to the prompt action of the Western Australia authorities, doubtless with your support, said lost item was promptly found. I am sure that as Rio Tinto is a global company anxious to retain a positive public profile in its international markets and with the investors and stockholders in all countries with which it interacts, you will welcome our enquiry as a stakeholder with an interest in the use of nuclear materials in our home countries and overseas. At the UK/Ireland NFLA, we continue to be anxious at the continued transit of nuclear materials, sometimes in less-than-ideal circumstances in our own countries, and where in occasional incidents such materials are lost. Should a similar incident to this occur in the UK, which is more densely populated than West Australia, members of our public would be more likely to come into close contact with such a package to their detriment, and there may be lessons arising from the recent incident that could be gainfully applied to transit conditions prevailing in the UK. May I ask will Rio Tinto now be issuing a public statement clearly outlining what went wrong and how the company intends to tight up transit arrangements in Australia so that such an incident – seemingly because vibrations during transit caused bolts to become loose, allowing the capsule to fall through gaps in the casing and truck – will never happen again? And can the company advise whether such revised arrangements might also be applied to ongoing Rio Tinto operations in other countries and which countries these are? And, furthermore, rather than waiting to be asked, will Rio Tinto honour Mr Trott’s stated commitment and proactively reimburse the public authorities the full cost of conducting the search to retrieve the missing item as it seems completely unfair to expect the hard-working, tax paying Australian public to meet any resultant costs, given responsibility appears to lie solely with your company? Many thanks for taking time from your busy schedule to attend to this matter. I look forward to your reply. Please direct this to Richard Outram, NFLA Secretary, at Yours sincerely, Councillor Lawrence O’Neill, Chair of the UK/Ireland NFLA Steering Committee

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