Portable nuclear device missing from stolen vehicle in Pennsylvania

Authorities in Pennsylvania are searching for a missing portable nuclear device containing radioactive material that belongs to a local construction inspection company.

The state's Department of Environmental Protection said the device, a portable nuclear gauge, is often used at construction sites to "evaluate the properties of building and road-bed materials." But if mishandled or damaged, people could be exposed to radiation contamination.

The nuclear density gauge belonging to KAKS and Company LLC was safely stored inside a vehicle reported stolen in the city of Philadelphia, the agency said in a press release Friday. When the car was found, the gauge was missing.

If the device's sealed sources of radioactive material are badly damaged or struck by a vehicle, "there is potential for damage to the radioactive source and spread of contamination," according to the agency.

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“It is critical for anyone who has information about the lost nuclear gauge to contact local authorities or DEP,” David Allard, director of the Bureau of Radiation Protection, said in a statement. “As long as the device is not tampered with or damaged, it presents no hazard to public safety.”

But environmental authorities said they believe the gauge "may have been damaged after the theft of the vehicle." That's why officials are urging anyone who encounters the device to not handle it and contact the authorities to allow a trained individual to recover it.

Exposure to low-levels of radiation may not result in an immediate health risk, but can cause a small increase in the risk of cancer over a lifetime, according to the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. High levels of radiation exposure over a short period of time can cause nausea and vomiting.