Fire and Rescue New South Wales confirms discovery of the material after it was called to assist Australian Border Force during search of Arncliffe property
Low level radioactive isotopes were found in a suburban Sydney home after it was raided by border authorities.
In a statement released on Thursday evening, Fire and Rescue New South Wales confirmed it had discovered the hazardous materials. It had been called to assist the Australian Border Force at a unit in Kelsey Street in Arncliffe, where they were executing a search on another matter.
#Breaking: A road has been blocked off by police and hazmat officers after mercury and a uranium isotope were discovered in an Arncliffe home. 10 News First understands the raid is being led by the Australian Border Force | @hughriminton
While the ABF did not initially confirm the presence of anything radioactive, it did say it was conducting an operation on Thursday with the support of New South Wales emergency services.
A spokesperson said “all appropriate safety measures are being implemented”.
“People in [the] vicinity of the location are urged to follow all directions from emergency services,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
The apartment block on Kelsey Street remained cordoned off with “hot zone” warning tape on Thursday afternoon and border force officers were inside the property behind a gated area at the entrance to the units.
Late on Thursday evening, Fire and Rescue NSW said that its “specialist crews located low level radioactive isotopes, commonly used in several industries, at the location”.
It said the material was found “in suitable and effective containers, with no release of radiation”, and that a 10-metre exclusion zone was established around the property as firefighters with protective clothing used “special detectors”.
An ABF spokesperson said the material was housed in “several vials”.
The firefighters were able to further seal the material, while three occupants of the home were taken to hospital “purely for observation”, with no evidence of exposure to the material.
Residents of nearby homes have been safely returned to their homes, with the scene declared safe.
Earlier, neighbours said they remained in the dark about the details of the operation including whether radioactive materials were found at the property.
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Nasser, who lives two houses down from the property and asked that his surname not be published, said emergency services cordoned off the street early in the morning and said only that residents should stay inside or leave the area.
“To have border force and guys walking out in hazmat suits and that, it’s a bit scary. You don’t know what’s going on and the police won’t tell you anything. No one has said anything. But I’m assuming it’s serious when you’re blocking off the street and telling residents to leave their houses,” he said.
Channel 10 reported that authorities found the substance uranium 238, a uranium isotope.
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Uranium 238 can be used in nuclear reactors and weapons but is also the “most commonly found naturally occurring isotope of uranium”, according to Dr Fiona Helen Panther from the University of Western Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGRav). She said it was hard to estimate its radioactivity.
“It’s a tricky one because it depends how long it’s been around, also what it’s in,” she said.
“It’s when it’s being bombarded with neutrons to split it that it becomes dangerous, but just hanging around in the environment … even a few grams of uranium isn’t going to raise [the background radiation] to a point where people should be concerned.”
She said hobby collectors could buy it in tiny vials, and that it even turned up in vintage items.
“In the 50s and 60s there was a popular type of glass that glows in the dark, and it shows up all the time in antique stores. You wouldn’t want to have it really close to you but the amount in it is so low it won’t pose a threat,” she said.
Emeritus professor Ian Lowe, a physics and nuclear waste expert from Griffith University’s School of Environment and Science, said an isotope is “just a form of atom that is radioactive”.
If law enforcement officers discovered such a substance, he said, they would pass them on to the regulator – the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (Arpansa).
Lowe says such a discovery would be “unlikely to be intensely radioactive” but no one could know for sure until it was known exactly what was found.
Australia’s nuclear regulator is “supporting relevant state and federal agencies in the ongoing management and resolution of the situation”, a spokesperson said in response to questions about the nuclear isotopes found in Arncliffe.