Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Splashdown Relieves An Australia on Alert

SYDNEY -- Three hours of nuclear tension gripped Australia on Monday with the country put on full alert to brace for a rogue Russian space probe carrying radioactive plutonium.

But as ministers huddled and emergency teams assembled, debris from the Mars-bound probe, which went haywire after launch, splashed down harmlessly in the southern Pacific.

The space drama started when U.S. President Bill Clinton telephoned Australian Prime Minister John Howard around 8 a.m. to warn that the crippled 6.8-ton spacecraft could crash in Australia.

"The probe contains four plutonium powered batteries. Each the size of an ordinary film canister containing approximately 200 grams of plutonium altogether," Howard told journalists at a press briefing.

But he stressed that the canisters were designed to withstand the heat of re-entry and impact of a crash on land.

In Canberra, Alan Hodges, director general of Emergency Management Australia, said after the debris had landed in the Pacific that the situation had been potentially very serious.

"We're talking about plutonium here," he said. The impact area and timing varied constantly during the three hours, between the Timor Sea off Northern Australia to the border area of Queensland and New South Wales to the Tasman Sea off Australia's southeast coast.

Police and emergency services were put on full alert as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation altered programming to follow the space-debris drama minute by minute.

An emergency team of military and nuclear experts assembled in Sydney, a spokesman said.

The Australian Space Debris Emergency Search Team was comprised of military personnel, and experts from the country's nuclear science organization.

The team, including air and ground radiological search squads and clean-up teams, was readied to fly to any impact site.

When news came that the debris had splashed into the sea, they broke out free beer at the local hotel in Tibooburra in northwest New South Wales, about 200 kilometers north of Broken Hill.

"We've got a few in the bar, so shouting a drink in celebration seemed like the right thing to do," said pub owner Alan Lowe.

He said he had been warned by police and the state emergency service that the satellite was expected to crash in Caryapundi Swamp, about 50 kilometers from the outback town.

The space debris drama came only a day before Clinton was due in Australia for a working and holiday visit.

Howard said the 10-minute call he had from Clinton was a "very helpful gesture."

But he was indirectly critical of Russia for failing to give him a similar briefing.

"It's obviously one of those situations where there's a proper obligation to share that kind of information in the interests of people taking adequate preparation," Howard said.