What does it mean when radioactive material goes missing?


Different radioisotopes have different half-lives, which relates to how long it takes for half of the sample to decay. The intensity of radiation each radioisotope emits also varies, with potential for varying extents of harm to the environment and people, ranging from skin burns to cancer from long-term exposure. Whether accidentally lost or intentionally stolen, the radioactive material could also land comfortably in the wrong hands, with certain radioisotopes optimal for use in a dirty bomb, for instance.

Therefore, it is essential any missing radioactive material is recovered as soon as possible.

This is something that has abruptly been brought to global attention very recently. On multiple occasions, radioactive material has gone missing, and subsequently detected where it shouldn’t have been:

  • London, January 2023 – material contaminated with small traces of uranium was detected in Heathrow airport. Although no threat to the public, the contaminated material was quickly identified and seized.
  • Australia, February 2023 – a pea-sized capsule of Caesium-137 used as a density gauge was lost in a remote outback highway. With potentially being lost for up to two weeks, it was eventually found using portable detection equipment
  • Thailand, March 2023 – A steel tube also containing Caesium-137 went missing from a coal powerplant ending up at a steel foundry, no longer intact. Unlike the case in Australia, this material was lost in the much more densely populated province of Prachin Buri, with Caesium-137 having the potential to cause rashes, burns as well as cancer from long-term exposure.
  • Texas March 2023– A radiographic camera used in the construction industry went missing with a very high activity gamma radiation source inside. The hazardous radioactive source is heavily sealed inside, therefore, will only become a threat if the camera is dismantled. The radiographic camera is yet to be found.
  • Libya March 2023– Around 2.5 tonnes of natural Uranium went missing from Libya. Although now found and the material not likely ideal for dirty bomb construction, safety and security fears have been raised over the unknown location of the material during the time it was missing.

In the majority of these incidents, the radioactive material was successfully detected and then dealt with appropriately. Although we now have the sufficient protocols and technology to facilitate finding lost radioactive material, we need to upscale the efficiency and reach of such efforts, to locate missing sources in a much shorter timeframe, and help prevent cases of missing material altogether.

Implementing extensive networks of static and mobile radiation detectors facilitates the real-time detection of any changes in radioactivity across cities, regions or even entire countries. Such widespread networks would enable remote decision-makers to actively track and quickly pinpoint the precise location of a missing source. Rapid response spectrometry is also necessary to inform the appropriateness of next steps e.g. how to maintain civilian and first responder safety in the presence of specified radioisotopes, as well as the effective clean-up operations to complete in the affected areas.

We’ve got the foundations of effective radiation detection. Now we must build on them, with widespread spectral data and rapid response technology.


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