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The hunt is on for a tiny radioactive capsule missing in Australia

Authorities were scouring an 870-mile stretch of road Monday, while a mining giant apologized for losing the dangerous device, which is believed to have fallen from one of its trucks.
Missing radioactive capsule in Australia.
Fire service officials search for a radioactive capsule believed to have fallen off a truck on the outskirts of Perth, Australia. Department of Fire and Emergency Services via AP / AP

A tiny but highly radioactive capsule missing in Australia has sparked a frantic search and an apology from the mining company whose truck the item is believed to have fallen from.

The round and silver capsule, 6 millimeters in diameter and 8 millimeters long, went missing last week in Western Australia, with officials warning against any contact with the dangerous substance.

Authorities were scouring an 870-mile stretch of the area, almost the length of California, on Monday while the mining giant said it was sorry for losing the radioactive device.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore said it was undertaking an internal investigation into how the potentially lethal and radioactive substance, which is commonly used within gauges in mining operations, could be lost.

“We recognize this is clearly very concerning and are sorry for the alarm it has caused in the Western Australian community,” chief executive Simon Trott said in a statement.

Radioactive capsule Australia.
A mining corporation on Sunday apologized for losing the highly radioactive capsule over an 870-mile stretch of Western Australia.Department of Fire and Emergency Services via AP / AP

Authorities were undertaking the daunting task of locating and securing the tiny capsule, which is believed to have fallen from a truck on Jan. 10 during its lengthy journey from a desert mine site near Newman to a storage facility in Perth. 

Emergency services were first notified last Wednesday, officials said, and alerted the public last Friday.

“DFES and radiation specialists are searching along Great Northern Highway by driving north and south directions at slow speeds,” the Department of Fire and Emergency Services, or DFES, said in a hazmat alert Monday, adding it was using survey meters to find the capsule by detecting radiation levels.

The truck arrived at Perth on Jan. 16, DFES said, while the emergency services were only notified about the missing capsule on Jan. 25 when a gauge was unpacked for inspection.

“Upon opening the package, it was found that the gauge was broken apart with one of the four mounting bolts missing and the source itself and all screws on the gauge also missing,” the emergency services said.

While the capsule cannot be weaponized, the Department of Health said in a statement Friday, it can cause “serious health consequences.”

The radioactive source of the capsule, Caesium-137, emits potentially fatal amounts of radiation, almost equivalent to receiving 10 X-rays in an hour and prolonged exposure can even cause cancer. It takes Caesium-137 almost 30 years to decay by half.

"It disappears quite quickly, compared to other radionuclides. However, short half-life means it's quite active," Hajime Kinoshita, a senior lecturer in materials chemistry at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., told NBC News.

"So, if somebody has it in their pocket or something, it's not particularly great," he said, adding that prolonged exposure could damage human cells.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services released this diagram showing the missing capsule.
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services released this diagram showing the missing capsule.DFES

Authorities have warned people to stay at least 5 meters from it.

“Exposure to this substance could cause radiation burns or severe illness — if people see the capsule or something that looks similar, stay away from it and keep others away from it too,” Western Australia’s chief health officer, Andrew Robertson, said in a statement Friday.

“If you are very close to the material or touching it, the radiation risk increases immensely and could cause serious damage to your health, including causing radiation burns to the skin.”

Concerns remained about the capsule potentially getting lodged in car tires. But the risk to passengers was low, Kinoshita said, as the organic material of the tires and the iron car frame should block the radiation.

Radioactive material is routinely transported around Western Australia, although under strict regulations, and is used commonly in medicine, industry, mining as well as research, Robertson told NBC News in a separate statement Monday.

“It is extremely rare for a source to be lost,” he said, adding that these radioactive sources are usually returned to the manufacturer at the end of their serviceable life.

Rio Tinto did not immediately respond to NBC News' request for further comment.