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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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”.