We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More
The Sciences

5 Times Radioactive Items Went Missing

Whether through theft, carelessness or by accident — it's scary to think of how often these dangerous materials have disappeared.

By Allison FuttermanMar 1, 2023 8:00 AM
Radioactive Material
(Credit: Parilov/Shutterstock)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Radioactive materials, also known as radionuclides, are chemicals in which the atom is unstable. As atoms try to restore balance, they break down and decay-causing the release of energy, known as radiation. Small amounts of radiation are all around us, including in everyday products such as microwaves and smoke detectors.

Other uses include killing germs in food as well as helping diagnose and treat certain medical conditions. However, exposure to large amounts of radiation (by inhalation, absorption or ingestion) can be extremely harmful.

Potentially dangerous radioactive material "goes missing" about 100 times a year worldwide. It might be lost or stolen.

1. Iridium-192: Michigan (2023)

An inspection company in Ohio that does testing in the industrial and energy fields shipped Iridium-192 to a facility in Michigan. Almost 10 days later, the package had not yet arrived.

While the material was radioactive, the inspection company assured the public that they used shipping safety precautions, that included secure and protective packaging. Someone would have needed to break open the container to access the radioactive material if found.

A little over a week later, the package was located, and the public was assured it had always been within the carrier's control.

2. Dirty Bomb Material: Malaysia (2018)

In 2018, the materials for a "dirty bomb" disappeared from the back of a pickup truck while being transported in Malaysia near Kuala Lumpur. The missing device was an industrial radiography unit used to locate cracks within metal. It was housed in a large metal tube that weighed 50 pounds.

This was another case involving Iridium-192. In this situation, it was an undisclosed amount. Still, it was troubling, as the unknown amount of this radioactive isotope could cause harm within minutes to hours if handled. Iridium-192 could have fatal effects on someone within close exposure for hours to days. Unfortunately, the material was never found.

3. Soil Gauge: Alabama (2023)

a Geotech engineering firm employee left behind or lost a device used to measure soil density and moisture. The Alabama Department of Public Health released a public statement asking for help locating the radioactive device and offered a reward. 

The gauge was securely locked in a box, clearly labeled as radioactive materials, but the public was warned not to touch it. A member of the public found the device and returned it to its rightful owner. And neither the company nor the government disclosed the specific materials contained in the gauge.

Read More: The Mysterious Radiation Bursts Threatening Aircrew

4. Plutonium and Cesium: Texas (2017)

Two employees from Idaho's Department of Energy's National Lab picked up nuclear materials from a research lab in Texas. They brought radiation detectors and small amounts of plutonium and cesium to confirm they were retrieving the correct items.

When the employees spent the night at a hotel along the way back, they (inexplicably) left the suitcases containing the sensors and the radioactive materials in their truck. The following day, they found the window smashed and the suitcases stolen. The event was not disclosed to the public by authorities. Nobody has been arrested for the theft, and the items have not been recovered.

5. Radioactive Capsule: Australia (2023)

When a truck carrying a pea-sized radioactive capsule containing caesium-137 (cesium-137) arrived at a storage facility in Perth, Australia — the capsule was missing. The capsule was used for a density gauge in the mining industry.

It's believed that the hardware holding the gauge together loosened during travel, and the capsule first fell out of the gauge — and then fell out of a space in the truck. The capsule was located by authorities who searched a stretch of highway almost 900 miles long. Found among pebbles about seven feet from the road, the capsule was verified using the serial number printed on it.

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.