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After a radioactive capsule went missing in Australia, could the same happen in Canada?

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After a tiny radioactive capsule went missing in the Australian outback, an expert in Canada says the likelihood of the same happening in this country is unlikely, given our strong regulations governing the handling of radioactive materials.

The capsule was reported missing on Jan. 25 after it fell off a truck while being transported along a 1,400-kilometre stretch of highway in Western Australia. Authorities in the region announced on Wednesday the capsule had been retrieved after days of searching

Here's what you need to know about the handling of radioactive devices in Canada and whether the same could happen here.

HOW COMMON ARE THESE RADIOACTIVE DEVICES IN CANADA?

The capsule that went missing in Australia was just six millimetres in diameter and eight millimetres long. It was part of a gauge used to measure the density of iron ore feed at Rio Tinto's Gudai-Darri mine in Western Australia. It contains the caesium 137 ceramic source, which emits dangerous amounts of radiation, the equivalent of receiving 10 X-rays in an hour.

Laura Boksman, senior consulting scientist at the Radiation Safety Institute of Canada, says such devices containing similarly radioactive material are common in Canada.

"We would have that sort of type of radioactive material device in all sorts of industries in Canada—in mining, in processing. You could have it in pulp and paper, you could have it in the steel industry, you can have them in bottling plants," she told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday in a phone interview. "They're very common, actually."

WHAT ARE THE SAFETY REGULATIONS GOVERNINIG RADIOACTIVE DEVICES IN CANADA?

In order to posess or use radioactive material, individuals have to apply for a licence from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), the federal regulator in charge of nuclear power and radioactive materials.

Applications must include a rundown of all the safety protocols that are planned, such as the training of the people transporting it, how the material is being packaged, what safety audits are being done on a regular basis, and what emergency plans are in place if the material gets lost or stolen.

"You have to submit a lot of information to the regulator to show that you're a committed to working safely and that your plans are adequate for what you want and plan to do with the type of radioactive material that you have," Boksman said

Licences to transport are typically granted for a period of five or 10 years, and they come with additional reporting requirements. On top of that, the CNSC also performs routine inspections.

"There are annual reports that have to be submitted. There are financial guarantees that have to be provided … so that if you go belly up and you just leave, the government has some financial compensation in order to deal with the problems of what you left behind," Boksman added. "To use radioactive material, it's very highly regulated with the CNSC."

Failure to properly handle radioactive material can result in thousands of dollars in fines, even jail time in Canada. But in Australia, the penalties are capped at A$1,000 (C$949), something that the Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has called "ridiculously low."

COULD THIS HAPPEN IN CANADA?

Given Canada's regulations, Boksman says it's "extremely unusual" for a radioactive source to go missing without being housed in a device or packaging.

"This sort of type of source would have been in in a gauge of some type, and they definitely don't come apart. And then when you look at the way they're transported, they have to be transported in specific packaging," Boksman said.

In 2022, there were five instances of lost or stolen sources or radiation devices, according the CNSC. Three of these cases involved the theft of portable gauge devices, two of which were recovered. In the other two cases, capsules of iodine-125 were lost in Montreal, but the CNSC classified these as Category 5 sources, or "very low risk."

Boksman says five instances of lost or stolen sources per year is "really, really quite small."

"There are thousands and thousands of shipments of radioactive material every year. We've got such a small number in proportion to the number of shipments that are out there," she said.

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press 

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