LAFAYETTE -- A box found in a parking lot in downtown Lafayette on Tuesday morning after being reported stolen initially sparked fears about radiation but was later determined to contain underground radar equipment, authorities said.

John Ingram, owner of Lafayette Auto Repair on Mt. Diablo Boulevard, said he noticed the bright green box covered with radiation stickers after 7 a.m. when he showed up for work. He said he kicked it a couple of times to see if anything was inside; when nothing happened, he called authorities.

That prompted a response from police, Contra Costa County Fire Protection District officials and the California Department of Public Health.

Two representatives from the state health department's Radiologic Health Branch, located in Richmond, examined the box and determined the device inside was a ground-penetrating radar, a common piece of construction equipment used to detect the density of soil or concrete.

"It's a piece of equipment that is radioactive, but (that) is safe to be around," said Kent Prendergast, radioactive materials senior health physicist with the Health Branch. "There is no health risk looking at it or standing near it."

Operators must have a license and training to use the equipment and there are state requirements on how to store the device, which has 10 millicuries of cesium-137 and 40 millicuries of americium-241, protected inside three layers of stainless steel, Prendergast said.


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State health officials, using a Geiger counter that measures ionized radiation, registered 4 millirems per hour on the surface of the box and 0.5 millirem per hour a meter away from it, both of which were safe levels, Prendergast said. By comparison, a dental X-ray machine registers about 7 millirems per hour, he said.

"Nobody was ever in danger," said Contra Costa Sheriff's Office spokesman Jimmy Lee.

The equipment was manufactured by InstroTek Inc. for the Cornerstone Earth Group, a company that has offices in Sunnyvale and Walnut Creek. Lafayette police said the equipment was reported stolen from the Walnut Creek office on Tuesday morning and investigators dusted the box for prints.

Cornerstone officials picked up the box around 11:30 a.m., a few hours after the incident began but declined to comment.

"I came to work and I found this funny-looking container," said Ingram, who has owned the shop for 28 years and was eager for three tow trucks to drop off disabled cars once police cleared the scene. "This is Lafayette. Nothing like this ever happens here."

Contact Rick Hurd at 925-945-4789 and follow him at Twitter.com/3rdERH. Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026 and follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.