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”.

Fa-La-La Land Down Under

I have two nieces who, along with their families, call islands their homes. One lives on Hawaii’s Oahu, her house perched on the cliffs above Honolulu with sweeping ocean views to the west. The other lives in Brisbane, on the east coast of Australia. Sure, Australia isn’t really an island, though it is surrounded by water. By definition its landmass makes it a continent instead. But Australia does lay claim to a few islands off its shores.  Including one named “Christmas”.

Christmas Island’s picture-perfect “Flying Fish Cove”

Imagine living in a world so small you can walk from one end to the other in less than two hours.  Your fellow islanders are so few, your entire social life is like living in a college dorm.  Your diet consists of fruits, nuts, and crab.  Lots and lots of crab.  And the single contribution you and your island-mates make to the outside world is phosphorous from your underground mines.  That, in a crab shell, is life on Christmas Island.

The first time someone told me there was a “Christmas Island”, I was young enough to be watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer every December on TV.  My favorite part of Rudolph’s story was the “Island of Misfit Toys”.  You remember, don’t you?  Rudolph was the reindeer-a non grata, mocked by the others because of his shiny nose.  Along with a couple other outcasts (Hermie, Santa’s elf who’d rather be a dentist, and Yukon Cornelius, the prospector who can never find silver or gold), Rudolph discovers the Island of Misfit Toys.  The island is a repository for unwanted toys.  As sad as that sounds, Rudolph’s island brings Christmas to mind much more than the little landmass I’m talking about today.

Palm trees (not pines) on Christmas Island

If you wonder why you’d ever visit Christmas Island, consider almost 65% of the island is a national park of unspoiled rainforest, with walking paths past 25 species of trees and 135 species of plants.  The only animals you’ll spy in the forest include the “flying fox” fruit bat, the recently introduced Javan deer, and the golden bosun (the island’s “official” bird).  Outside of the forest however, it’s impossible to miss the crabs.  Coconut crabs.  Red crabs.  Thirteen different species of land crabs, let alone those who prefer the ocean.  And here’s the best part.  Every year, one hundred million of them migrate from solid ground to water (to spawn), a sight mind-blowing enough to be called “one of the wonders of the natural world”.

Watch the following short video on the chaotic Christmas Island crab migration.  Makes you wonder how you can walk anywhere without getting “crabs”.  If this is something you simply must see in person, find your way to Perth on Australia’s western mainland, and book one of two weekly flights to Christmas Island courtesy of Virgin Airlines.  Your 3+ hours in the air will take you over nothing but the vast Indian Ocean.

It’s high time we addressed the most burning question about our little fa-la-la land down under.  Why is it named Christmas Island?  Here are popular theories.  One, “The rainforest is made up of nothing but evergreen (Christmas) trees.”  Two (for the geographically challenged), “The island is the closest landmass to the North Pole.”  And three “Christmas Island was the origin of the species diospyros virginiana, more commonly known as the sugar plum tree.”  The correct answer?  None of the above.  In the 1600s, European explorer Richard Rowe first set foot on the island, doing so on December 25th.  With no more creativity than a glance at the calendar, his discovery was dubbed Christmas Island.

Norfolk Island pine

I’ve got a much better “Christmas Island” for you.  Flip over to just off the east coast of Australia and you’ll find an even tinier landmass called Norfolk Island.  It’s about a quarter the size of Christmas, with the same number of inhabitants.  But Norfolk Island’s primary export is much more “Christmas” than phosphorous.  It is the evergreen Norfolk Island pine, a popular ornamental tree in Australia.  My wife and I found one at Home Depot a few years ago and bought it for her mother.  For small spaces, Norfolk Island pines make great Christmas trees.

“Christmas” looks a little like an Aussie Shepherd!

In defense of Christmas Island, there’s more going on within its shores than phosphorous and crabs.  Most of the residents live in the northern area of the island surrounding a coastal region known as Flying Fish Cove.  They speak one or more of five different languages.  There’s a high school and a public library.  There’s even a cricket club, which just celebrated sixty years in the game.  And most fitting to this time of year, twenty percent of the population call themselves Christians.  In other words, despite the uninspiring reason for its name, Christmas really does come to Christmas Island.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.