SYDNEY (Reuters) -Authorities in Australia aim to toughen up laws on the mishandling of radioactive material as a search for a hazardous capsule that a mining company lost in the Outback enters a seventh day.
Officials from Western Australia's emergency response department, defence authorities, radiation specialists and others are combing a 1,400 km (870 mile) stretch of highway for the tiny capsule that was lost in transit more than two weeks ago.
The radioactive capsule was part of a gauge used to measure the density of iron ore feed from Rio Tinto's Gudai-Darri mine in the state's remote Kimberley region. The ore was being taken to a facility in the suburbs of Perth - a distance longer than the length of Great Britain.
The penalty for failing to safely handle radioactive substances is A$1,000 and A$50 per day the offence continues, according to state legislation from 1975.
"That figure is ridiculously low but I suspect that it's ridiculously low because people didn't think such an item could be lost," Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told a news conference in the state capital, Perth, referring to the fine.
The silver capsule, 6 mm in diameter and 8 mm long, contains Caesium-137 which emits radiation equal to 10 X-rays per hour.
"It shouldn't have been lost," Albanese said.
Rio Tinto apologised for the loss on Monday. It had entrusted shipment to specialist packing and transport operators.
The state minister for health, Amber-Jade Sanderson, told the news conference her government was looking to increase fines and penalties for cost recovery in such circumstances.
"The current fine system is unacceptably low and we are looking at how we can increase that," Sanderson said.
She said the investigation suggested the loss was the result of incompetence not conspiracy.
Authorities suspect vibrations on the bumpy road loosened screws and a bolt on the gauge letting the capsule fall out. The gauge was picked up from the mine site on Jan. 12 and was unpacked for inspection on Jan. 25 when the loss of the capsule was discovered.
People have been told to stay at least five metres (16.5 feet) away from the capsule if they spot it as exposure could cause radiation burns or radiation sickness, though driving past it is believed to be relatively low risk, akin to taking an X-ray.
Police had looked into laying charges over the lost capsule but decided there was no case to answer, state Commissioner Col Blanch told reporters on Tuesday.
“We’ve been coming at it from an investigation perspective to see if there were criminal actions involved. We have pretty much determined that’s not the case,” he told reporters.
($1 = 1.4152 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Robert Birsel)