The Case of the Missing Radioactive Rod

File this under the "things that should never go missing" category.
Thu September 20, 2012 2:37 am
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It is never comforting to see the words "lost" and "radioactive material" appear in the same sentence. But, somewhere in West Texas, a seven-inch steel rod containing a mixture of americium-241 and beryllium is rolling around.

According to the Telegraph's Matthew Sparkes, Halliburton misplaced the radioactive rod somewhere between Pecos and Odessa on September 11.

Did you come across a stick of metal while wandering a West Texas oilfield recently? This rod, the Guardian's Rupert Neate reported, bears the warning "Danger Radioactive: Do not handle. Notify civil authorities if found." But you shouldn't get close enough to the rod to even read those words. "Halliburton said it would offer a reward to anyone who finds the rod, but cautioned the public to stay at least 25ft away from the device," Neate wrote.

The rod is "classed as a 'category 3' radiation source, meaning it could cause permanent injury to anyone handling it. There is a small chance that exposure could be fatal, although that would require close proximity for days or weeks," Sparkes wrote.

At StateImpact Texas , Terrence Henry explained what the Halliburton team had been doing with the stick of metal: "The rod is used in horizontal drilling, aka 'fracking.' They’re lowered down into wells to find the best places to break up shale to release oil and gas deposits deep underground."

Does this sort of thing happen often? No, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission this is the first radioactive rod reported missing in five years.  "[There has] never been one lost in the public domain [in the last five years]," she told the Guardian.

The FBI has questioned the three-man Halliburton team who had been using the rod, and now the National Guard is helping hunt for it, according to the Christian Science Monitor . Authorities have retraced the truck's 130-mile route from Pecos to Odessa three times using equipment that can detect radiation but have yet to find the tiny radioactive stick.

But, before you lock yourself in your fallout shelter, know that at Forbes, Tim Worstall is cautioning everyone not to panic about the missing rod, as it poses more of an economic danger (it could be very costly if this material made it into the scrap metal chain) than a danger to human health.

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