Hail, Caesium!

I acquired a taste for Caesar salad later in life. After decades of boring lettuce/tomato and franchise salad bars, I learned to branch out a little. Caesar, with its romaine, croutons, Parmesan, and distinctive dressing, has become my go-to at restaurants. But I always double-check my “hold the anchovies, please” because even a thimbleful would put a damper on things. Kind of like caesium-137.

Small but mighty

You probably don’t know much about caesium.  Pronounce it just like the salad (or like “seize” in Seize the day!).  Caesium-137 is a nasty little byproduct of nuclear fission, deadly enough to turn your life into a… uh, half-life with just a brief introduction.  So here’s the story of the little caesium capsule – a.k.a. Little Caesar – that could get away, and did.

It’s a simple enough task, really.  Transport an item from Point A to Point B, like the new washing machine we just had delivered from Home Depot.  But let’s make the job a little more challenging, shall we?  The distance you have to travel shall be almost 900 miles.  The journey itself shall be on the oft-barren Great Northern Highway of Western Australia, which isn’t always the smoothest of rides.  Finally, transport a potentially lethal substance… without dropping it.

“Little Caesar” was t-i-n-y

You’d think radioactive caesium-137 – no matter how small an amount – would be literally welded into the delivery truck it rides in.  Instead, the pill-sized capsule – already parked inside the density gauge equipment it was a part of, was placed in a “package”, then attached to the truck with four mounting bolts.

Now then, imagine you’ve just completed the long and boring four-day drive to the nuclear waste treatment facility in Perth.  You hop off the truck, walk around to the back, open the doors, and discover not only a broken gauge and a missing mounting bolt, but no caesium-137 capsule.  In fact, the delivery truck wasn’t even inspected until nine days after arrival.

This scenario raises a half-life of questions for me.  First, just how bumpy was that Great Northern Highway?  Second, even if the gauge broke open and the capsule got loose, how the heck did it escape, not only out of the package but out of the entire truck?  Finally, we’re talking about lethal goods here.  Wouldn’t some sort of alarm go off if Little Caesar skipped town?  I’m guessing someone is answering these kinds of questions as we speak, and his/her seat is a little warm.

The fearless search committee

imagine being a member of the ad hoc search-and-rescue crew.  Not only are you looking for something that can kill you just by being in close proximity, it’s the proverbial needle in the haystack, only the needle is the size of a paper clip and the haystack is a highway longer than the coast of California.  No matter, you’re handed a radiation detection device, the keys to a truck with flashing hazard lights, and off you go.  Oh, and by the way, you can’t go faster than 30 mph or your detector can’t do its job.

This isn’t the first unintended release of Little Caesar.  He escaped in much larger quantities from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 and from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011.  You can read about nine other incidents involving “LC” here, including one in Seattle four years ago and one in Thailand in March.

At the time I saved this story in January, Little Caesar was still at large.  Worst-case scenarios were running rampant.  What if LC bounced to freedom on a populated area of the highway?  What if a hiker happened upon the capsule and threw it into his or her backpack before returning home?  Or, God forbid, what if a bird snatched the capsule in its beak and transported it to its nest in the middle of downtown Perth?

LC was hiding here

Three months later (this week), I caught up with this story.  The run-of-the-mill conclusion is that Little Caesar was found just six days after his escape, off the highway in a remote area not far from the truck’s point of departure.  The radiation detection equipment sounded the alarm and led the search team right to our little friend.

A close-up of the escapee

As for what happened once LC was found?  A 20-meter “hot zone” was set up around him to fend off the inevitable lookie-loos.  He was given a thick casing of lead in case he was feeling “radiant”.  Finally, Little Caesar was scheduled to be transported to the county health facility for further examination.  Yes, I said “transported”.  No word on whether or not he made it to his final destination.

Some content sourced from the ABC News article “Missing radioactive capsule found in WA outback after frantic search”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Author: Dave

Three hundred posts would suggest I have something to say… This blog was born from a desire to elevate the English language, highlighting eloquent words from days gone by. The stories I share are snippets of life itself, and each comes with a bonus: a dusted-off word I hope you’ll go on to use more often. Read “Deutschland-ish Improvements” to learn about my backyard European wish list. Try “Slush Fun” for the throwback years of the 7-Eleven convenience store. Or drink in "Iced Coffee" to discover the plight of the rural French cafe. On the lighter side, read "Late Night Racquet Sports" for my adventures with our latest moth invasion. As Walt Whitman said, “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Here then, my verse. Welcome to Life In A Word.

19 thoughts on “Hail, Caesium!”

  1. My husband’s Caesar Salad recipe is a family favorite! Just about every ingredient has to be MISOB – mashed into side of bowl. Also, we like anchovies!

    Hopefully the disposal of nuclear material is mostly very safe! The nuclear plants themselves (667 in 70 years) have been quite safe. There have been three major incidents which resulted in 32 radiation deaths. (Our World in Data has an excellent summary of death tolls at Chernobyl and Fukushima.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When you couch nuclear power in those numbers, it seems remarkably safe to produce. I wouldn’t have guessed there were so many plants, not even close. “MISOB” – now there’s a new acronym to file away for future use!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Your honesty is refreshing! There really are “all kinds” of salads these days. A traditional spinach is my absolute favorite, with the hard-boiled egg, bacon bits, and warm dressing.


  2. My grandson loves Caesar salads, but so far hasn’t voiced an opinion on caesium-137 (or any of the radioactive isotopes). Personal, I’m thinking someone left a bolt or two out – both the transport truck and the brain of whoever was supposed to inspect this before it hit the bumpy road.

    When I first read the story I thought, “What’s the fuse, don’t you have Geiger counters or other detection devices that can see that much radiation?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was hoping to learn the cost of the search-and-rescue effort. I suspect the bill might have put the delivery truck company out of business.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yikes, that is scary to read about Dave. Makes me a little queasy to learn about it, just as I was when I heard that Michigan was taking deep-well deliveries of the liquid from the train that derailed in Ohio earlier this year, changing those residents’ lives forever, BUT possibly changing lives of others here in Michigan who collectively wonder if OUR water supplies will now be tainted? Our state and local representatives were mindful of the deep well deliveries, but had no idea that this toxic liquid was being delivered here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We live adjacent to the Savannah River Site (SRS), a vast property where nuclear materials were produced before the turn of the century. They’re in the years-long process of shutting down the facility now, but you can’t help but wonder what happens if something radioactive were to get loose. Hence my interest in the Little Caesar story.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m leery of everything these days. Too many train derailments. I live about 20 miles from the Fermi II nuclear power plant. I understand that is far enough away that evacuation is not necessary for me in the event of a catastrophic event there. There are more and more things to worry about.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. What a story, one I’m not thrilled to read about obviously. I do like your lead into it with the mention of salad. I love a good Caesar salad and now, thanks to you, I’m hungry for one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Caesar salad seems to be one of those love/hate things – no middle ground. I’d be curious to see the percentages with a much wider audience than my blog 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ll be the weirdo. I can take a Caesar salad or leave it. Really, I’m that way with most salads, but am a big fan of the spinach with the warm bacon dressing.

    I wonder if anyone pointed at the driver and yelled “Seize him!”

    Liked by 1 person

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