Sounding like something out of a film script, two thieves in Mexico stole a truck this week, unaware that it contained a dangerous cargo. On board was radioactive material used for medical purposes, but could also be used in the making of a “dirty bomb.” Mexican police have located the abandoned truck around 25 miles from where it was stolen.
When the vehicle was found, the safety container which should have held the radioactive element was empty. However police found the material abandoned close by.
Reportedly the vehicle was discovered a short distance from where it was stolen outside Mexico City. At the time it was stolen, the truck was transporting around 1.4 ounces of the hazardous material cobalt-60 from a Tijuana hospital to a radioactive waste storage center for disposal.
According to Mexico’s nuclear safety director, Juan Eibenschutz, radioactivity was detected approximately a half mile from where the truck was abandoned.
The national nuclear safety commission (CNSNS) in Mexico told the media that the thieves, believed to have been unaware of the stolen contents of the truck, and who later removed the radioactive material from the protective casing, were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.
Eibenschultz told the media that the radioactive source “is very strong” and that exposure could cause almost immediate death.
While he said that fortunately there are no people located where the source of the radioactivity is, the thieves would probably not have been so lucky.
Eibenshultz continued that there were no indications that the theft was related in any way to terrorism.
The reason for scrapping the contents of the truck was that the material was used in radiation therapy equipment which is now obsolete and gradually being phased out of the public health system in Mexico.
According to the Mexican military and federal police, officials have been mobilized in Hueypoxtla and Zumpango municipalities to recover the radioactive material, which will then be returned to a sealed case as soon as possible. Authorities have reportedly set up a 500-meter perimeter around the site and are guarding the area.
According to Eibenshultz the clean-up operation in the area could take weeks. He said that they don’t have the necessary robotic equipment needed to collect the cobalt. However, they are considering possibly requesting assistance from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United States or Canada.
While the thieves are still on the loose and uncaptured, authorities believe they could arrive at a clinic or hospital soon, suffering from symptoms of radiation exposure.
Speaking of the original theft of the vehicle, Marcos Morales, the local prosecutor, told the media that at around 1 am on Monday, a man carrying a gun, knocked on the passenger window of the truck.
When the truck’s passenger opened the window, the gunman demanded the keys. The gunman then took over the truck, taking the driver and his passenger to an empty lot where they tied them up and told them not to move. The men said that they heard one of the thieves use a walkie-talkie or phone to tell someone, “It’s done.”
Shortly after this, Mexico alerted the IAEA to the theft.
Apparently this kind of theft is not uncommon in Mexico, as an official told the AP that the unintentional theft of radioactive materials happens quite often.
Reportedly back in the 1970s, thieves opened a container which held radioactive material. One of them died and the other was seriously injured.
What was worse was that the container was then sold on to a foundry, where shortly afterwards steel reinforcement bars were contaminated with radioactivity. Apparently these days foundries in Mexico are set up to detect radioactivity.
At least in the current incident the stolen radioactive material and the truck have been found in Mexico with so far no casualties, other than possibly the thieves themselves.
By Anne Sewell