Special Report: Australia’s Cesium 137 Accident - A Radioactive Nightmare

Special Report: Australia’s Cesium 137 Accident - A Radioactive Nightmare

by Matt Collins

On or around January 11th, 2023, a small vial of highly radioactive Cesium 137 fell off the back of a transport truck in Western Australia.

The silver vial was tiny—just 8mm x 6mm. Which meant finding it across the 1,400 square kilometer search radius would be next to impossible. But the authorities had to find it as soon as possible. Because if some unsuspecting civilian happened upon the vial first, they’d be bombarded by the equivalent of 10 X-Rays worth of radiation every hour.

That small vial could subject people to a year’s worth of typical radiation exposure - in just one hour.

Massive search radius for missing Cesium 137 vial Image courtesy of Vice

The Australian government’s response was swift and decisive.

They issued national alerts, warning citizens “not to touch it” and that they should seek immediate medical attention if they’ve come into contact with it.

They sent out search parties equipped with ultra-sensitive detection gear to scour a 900-mile stretch of highway.

And the story quickly made international headlines due mainly to the government’s response.

Of course, this isn’t the first case of “lost” or “missing” radioactive material.

Due to the frequency and severity of these sometimes deadly accidents, we’ll look at how they happen, why they matter, and how you can protect your family from the threat of unknown but acute exposure to radiation.

Let’s start with a closer look at Cesium 137 itself.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Cesium 137 is a Radioactive “Double-Edged Sword”

  • 02

    Hiding in Plain Sight

  • 03

    Cesium 137’s Dirty Bomb Potential

  • 04

    Dirty Bomb Defense

  • 05

    Practical Everyday Protection

  • 06

    A Disaster Waiting to Happen

Cesium 137 is a Radioactive “Double-Edged Sword”

Cesium 137 is a radioactive isotope produced during fission reactions like those found in nuclear reactors or by atomic weapons. It has a half-life of roughly 30 years and produces beta radiation.

Since it’s almost entirely man-made and all made after 1945, its presence is even used to date fine wines.

It’s a waste product for nuclear reactors. But Cesium 137 is often used in “industrial radiography.” There, it’s essentially used to X-ray scan entire buildings and large engineering projects like oil pipelines. It’s crucial for ensuring the integrity of these massive structures, so it’s used across all 50 states.

It’s also commonly used in radiation therapy. That’s why exposure is often explained in terms of equivalent X-rays—because this is the material used for X-rays (even then, it’s shielded).

Unfortunately, the same radioactive properties that make Cesium 137 excel for these tasks can also make it extremely dangerous in the environment.

Cesium 137 can be found everywhere inside Chernobyl’s exclusion zone—where it will likely remain for hundreds of years. Massive amounts of the isotope were ejected into the atmosphere after the meltdown, spreading across Germany and Scandinavia. And by 2016, the vast quantities of Cesium had only decayed by half.

High concentrations of Cesium 137 were also found in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown. After that disaster, it’s estimated that varying concentrations of the radioactive particulate spread across the globe:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Even today, over a decade after the meltdown, Japan is still working to strip the Cesium from the most contaminated areas close to the power plant.

Human error is ultimately the critical culprit in each of these cases, whether it’s a reactor meltdown or a lost capsule of Cesium. Because radioactivity can be a powerful tool when used correctly, but mistakes will inevitably be made.

With highly radioactive material, those mistakes can be lethal. But they can also be nearly undetectable in many circumstances—as history has shown.

Cesium 137 Hiding in Plain Sight

Once again, Australia’s lost vial of Cesium wasn’t the first time this material has gone missing.

Governments in the US and the European Union do an excellent job of tracking radioactive material used for academic and industrial purposes. But even then, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates that one radioactive source is lost or stolen each day of the year. It’s estimated that only 20% of those lost or “orphan” sources would be a potential threat.

But even then, that would mean over 70 radioactive sources are essentially lost yearly in the US.

Not to speak of the rest of the world:

In Brazil, 1987: A few men looted an abandoned hospital and cracked open the vials to get at the glowing cesium salt. After selling it to unsuspecting buyers and exposing an entire neighborhood, 249 people were ultimately contaminated, with 20 seriously injured and five dead.

In Ukraine, 1989: A radioactive capsule lost in a sand quarry is mixed into gravel and built into the wall of an apartment building. Residents didn’t notice it until nine years after two different families had experienced acute radiation. 6 residents ultimately died, with four deaths from leukemia and 17 receiving doses of radiation.

Image courtesy of Reddit

In Georgia, 1997: After the fall of the Soviet Union, radiation sources were often misplaced or unlabeled. One was found in the pocket of a shared jacket worn by several soldiers who suffered burns and radiation poisoning. The single pellet of cesium 137 was estimated to emit 130,000 times the background radiation level.

In Spain, 1998: A recycling company (Acerinox) accidentally melts down a chunk of Cesium that had been removed from a gamma ray generator.

And the list goes on.

In each of these cases, the individuals exposed were almost entirely unaware because radiation is odorless, tasteless, and invisible for all intents and purposes.

And as more of these radioactive sources are misplaced or “orphaned,” the risk of them falling into the wrong hands will keep increasing.

Cesium 137’s Dirty Bomb Potential

Of course, the most dangerous outcome of lost radioactive material would see it falling into the hands of terrorists.

And due to its widespread use and availability, Cesium 137 would be a prime candidate for constructing a “dirty bomb.”

A dirty bomb is a radiological dispersion device. Unlike nuclear weapons—which require highly sophisticated engineering and can level entire cities—a dirty bomb would use dynamite or other explosives to disperse radioactive material over a relatively much smaller area (think city blocks instead of whole cities).

There’s no nuclear fission with a dirty bomb, just an explosion ejecting radioactive particles in the aftermath: no mushroom cloud or initial mega-blast. Dirty bombs would skip straight to the fallout stage of a nuclear blast. If the explosion is intense enough to vaporize the radioactive materials, they could potentially affect a much larger area.

We should note at this point that no dirty bomb has ever actually been deployed or used. The idea entered the public consciousness in 2002 when United States Attorney General John Ashcroft alleged that José Padilla had been caught while attempting to build a dirty bomb.

Since then, they’ve remained an ever-present threat. With The Atlantic referring to dirty bombs as “inevitable:”

Considering the long half-life of Cesium 137, a terrorist group could potentially accumulate these orphan sources over time and eventually use them in an attack. Explosives would be readily available, and there’s virtually zero engineering challenge compared to a nuclear weapon. The risk of exposure to those radioactive materials would be substantial. And anyone equipped with a standard Geiger counter would be in a position to find them.

Fortunately, the real-world damage of any dirty bomb would be limited. Unless you were in the immediate proximity of the blast, it’s unlikely you would be affected.

Considering the long half-life of Cesium 137, a terrorist group could potentially accumulate these orphan sources over time and eventually use them in an attack.

Explosives would be readily available, and there’s virtually zero engineering challenge compared to a nuclear weapon. The risk of exposure to those radioactive materials would be substantial. And anyone equipped with a standard Geiger counter would be in a position to find them.

As The Atlantic’s Steven Brill points out in the video above, a dirty bomb detonated in Washington DC would increase cancer incidence and potentially kill 1 in 10,000 throughout the city—which means only 50 more deaths after the initial explosion. And unlike the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, it’s unlikely the fallout would persist for very long.

Yet these numbers would likely be cold comfort in the aftermath of a dirty bomb detonation.

Because regardless of its lethality, a dirty bomb would stoke fear and terror, unlike any attack we’ve ever seen, accomplishing the core goal of any terrorist attack. Americans would be stunned to see Geiger counters and HAZ-SUITs at the scene of an explosion.

Experts admit that it’s currently difficult to imagine the effects a dirty bomb might have—from its psychological impact to its economic and human impact. Without any existing data, that’s just something we won’t know until it happens.

Once again, the accessibility of radioactive material like Cesium 137 means another dirty bomb attack could potentially follow in short order.

Dirty Bomb Defense

If you’re ever caught in the middle of a dirty bomb attack, the first critical step is to understand the threat.

Dirty bombs work by aerosolizing and dispersing radioactive materials. These materials can give you a hefty dose of radiation in a short time, which is worse if you come in direct contact with them. They’re dispersed in the immediate area of the initial explosion, and after that, they will likely spread on the wind in small quantities through the nearby area/city.

So if you’re outside when the dirty bomb goes off, don’t touch anything. Don’t linger where your clothing or skin might accumulate radioactive dust. Find a respirator, or at the very least, something to cover your mouth to minimize the amount of radioactive dust you inhale. Immediately seek shelter within a building whose walls, windows, and doors remain intact.

Once inside, find a plastic bag to dispose of your clothing. That may sound like a strange first step, but doing so removes 90% of radioactive dust. If possible, you should shower immediately and wash your hair thoroughly.

If you’re already inside a safe shelter when the bomb goes off, you should stay there. Turn off any fans or ventilation systems that may bring air in from the outside. It’s not strictly necessary to tape up windows and doors in this case.

If you’re in a car when the bomb goes off, you should roll up all your windows, close your vents and turn off air conditioning or heating. Drive safely to the closest shelter—your home, office, or a covered parking lot. You can also stop under a bridge.

Once parked, remain in your vehicle and listen to the radio for instructions.

Realistically, these considerations will only apply to those within a few blocks of the dirty bomb when it goes off.

Unlike the aftermath of a nuclear detonation, where you might need to remain indoors for weeks, the worst of a dirty bomb’s effects will be over in minutes. As long as you can avoid the fallout in the immediate area and you’re mindful of potential radiation exposure, a dirty bomb would be more survivable than some might realize.

At the same time, you’re dealing with a uniquely concentrated area of highly radioactive particles. Without the proper preparation, the effects of exposure could be more widespread and long-lasting. Inevitably, some of those exposed would develop more long-term forms of cancer that may take years to manifest.

Practical Everyday Protection from Cesium 137

To protect yourself and your family from radiation, a Geiger counter is the perfect “first line of defense.”

Because Geiger counters allow you to detect that invisible threat, often far enough in advance to take preventive action and avoid further exposure, especially in the aftermath of a disaster, a Geiger counter can be crucial in guiding you to safety.

In recent years, consumer Geiger counters have made massive leaps forward. Specifically our new MIRA Safety Geiger-2. It combines the standard SBM20-01 Geiger Muller tube found in military Geiger Counters with smartphone-age upgrades, like a full color 1.1” LCD screen and a rechargeable LiPo battery.

Most of the Geiger counters you see in movies are simply a static gauge display with that familiar popping noise to indicate radioactivity. But with its advanced interface, the Geiger-2 gives you thousands of options. You can track long-term exposure, set critical alarms for exposure, and sense even trace amounts of radioactivity (as low as 0.999 μSv/h) in just 20 seconds.

Picture of Geiger-2 Image courtesy of Ebay

Most importantly, the Geiger-2 is ultra-compact compared to most handheld Geiger counters. That makes it ideal for everyday carry—with a tough enough housing to take regular bumps and scrapes.

With a Geiger counter handy, it’s easy to start identifying local areas where background radiation might be higher than average, much like a carbon monoxide detector would warn you about another dangerous threat in your home.

Another critical step is adding some MIRA Safety Potassium Iodide tablets to your arsenal. Though they don’t directly help in the case of Cesium 137 exposure, they can protect you from the radioactive iodine that often comes with it.

These tablets flood your thyroid gland with safe potassium iodide, preventing the absorption of radioactive iodine that can cause thyroid cancer. If the worst-case scenario ever becomes a reality—and a dirty bomb is detonated—these tablets could save your life.

If you’re ever near a dirty bomb or an area of concentrated radioactive dispersal, you should seek shelter and remain indoors until authorities advise otherwise. Once again, the radiation dispersed in the aftermath of a dirty bomb would be limited, and it should be safe soon.

A Disaster Waiting to Happen

The search truck was coasting down the highway at 43 miles per hour when they found it.

Even at speed, their detection equipment went off, alerting them to the Cesium 137 capsules by the side of the road. Using industrial-grade, ultra-sensitive Geiger counters, they averted what could’ve been a crisis.

By that point, the capsule had been on the side of the road for over three weeks.

If any malicious or unsuspecting party had found the vial, the consequences could’ve been deadly—as they have in the past.

But the number of orphan radioactive sources keeps growing larger, potentially a disaster waiting to happen. One that governments won’t likely address until it’s too late. Any effort to track down and isolate these orphan sources would cost a fortune, so it’s unlikely they’ll take proactive measures.

That means it falls on individuals and families to take proactive measures. Though the likelihood of acute radioactive exposure is low, statistically speaking, a suitable detection device like the Geiger-2 will help you avoid it altogether.