Lost radioactive capsule found in Thailand, prompting health fears and anger

A missing radioactive capsule that sparked health fears in Thailand and a days-long search has been found and likely crushed, according to local authorities.

The cylinder, which contains cesium-137 and weighs 25 kilograms (55 pounds), was tracked down in Thailand’s eastern Prachin Buri province on Sunday, according to a Facebook post from officials in the area. It was found after radioactive readings were detected at a metal foundry in the province, local media reported, citing the provincial governor, Ronnarong Nakornjinda.

But there was initial confusion over the degree of radiation released from the device and its final fate. Ronnarong said in a press conference Monday that authorities were still trying to ascertain if the cylinder was fully melted and smelted at the plant.

Earlier, Julapong Taweesri, the director general of Thailand’s Department of Industrial Works, told a local television channel that the radioactive cylinder may have been melted and smelted into “red dust” after officials detected cesium in dust particles at the plant. Governor Ronnarong said Monday that the dust was believed to have been smelted in a closed loop system at the plant, and no leak has been detected.

No health issues have been observed in Thai hospitals since the cylinder went missing, Opas Karnkawinpong, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Public Health, told reporters on Monday. Seventy workers at the now-shut metal plant were tested for radiation exposure, but nothing has been detected, according to Opas. The health ministry will conduct more blood tests and monitor abnormalities, he said.

The lack of clarity appeared to fan public anger. Many voiced confusion and frustration on social media over a perceived slow response by the government, just as Thailand prepares for election season.

“#Cesium-137” became the top trending issue on Twitter in Thailand on Monday afternoon. “Calm down? Calm down over what?” wrote student activist Tanawat Wongchai. He said people want the matter to be addressed in a serious and urgent way, rather than by officials self-praising or “talking rubbish.”

The loss of the cylinder, which was used for ash measurements, was first reported on March 10 after a routine check by workers at a coal power plant in the province. It then prompted a sweeping search in the area. Drones and hundreds of staff were deployed, and an award of 100,000 baht ($3,000) was also offered to anyone with information about its location.

Prachin Buri, which is just 150 km (90 miles) east of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, has numerous tourist attractions, including parts of a popular national park, Khao Yai.

Thai police said on Monday that the power plant operator, National Power Plant 5A Co., will be initially charged with delayed reporting of missing radioactive material, which they believe went missing as early as Feb. 17. The offense carries as much as a 100,000 baht fine and a maximum of one year in prison.

Thailand’s Office of Atoms for Peace, the national regulator for nuclear research, previously warned of heath risks — including burns and cancer — if the radioactive material is exposed. The half-life of cesium-137 is around 30 years.

At the end of January, a radioactive widget owned by mining giant Rio Tinto Plc went missing while being transported, prompting a major search in Australia. But the device was less than one centimeter long, compared to the Thai capsule, which measures at least 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) in diameter. It was eventually tracked down intact on a remote road in Western Australia. – BLOOMBERG