A truck carrying exceptionally dangerous nuclear waste was stolen in Mexico on Monday. The stolen vehicle which was transporting radiotherapy equipment from a hospital to a waste facility was found on Wednesday.
Inside the equipment was the radioactive isotope cobalt-60, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). At the time the vehicle was stolen the contents were properly shielded. IAEA’s biggest concern was the potential danger that could happen if the shielding was removed or even damaged.
The truck that transported the material was a 2.5 ton Volkswagen truck; complete with an integrated crane.
The vehicle marked “Transportez Ortiz” was stolen by gunpoint from a gas station in Tepojaco; north of Mexico City on Monday. Once found, the radioactive material was located about a half-mile away from the truck; along with the empty protective lead container.
The vehicle departed Tijuana on November 28 in route to transport the nuclear waste to the storage facility. The driver, Valentin Escamilla Ortiz, and his assistant told authorities they stopped at a gas station to rest. Ortiz said both of them were asleep when the two armed men awakened them. They forced the two men, at gunpoint, to get out of the truck; after which they tied their hands and feet before leaving them in a nearby vacant lot.
Ortiz told authorities they heard one of the thieves, using some type of handheld device, that “it” was done. As soon as Ortiz and his assistant were able to free themselves they hurried back to the gas station in search of help.
Authorities sent out an alert to the capital and six central states. Mexican customs officials were alerted in case the truck and the assailants attempted to cross the border. Trucks crossing the border are regularly checked for radiation; all of the U.S. ports of entry have radiation detectors in place.
It not believed that the thieves actually targeted the contents of the vehicle. According to the director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards, Juan Eibenschutz; they were probably more interested in the Volkswagen cargo vehicle along with the attached equipment; than the nuclear waste. The truck contained a movable platform and crane which could be used for a variety of things.
The opened container was found on Wednesday but officials don’t know whether any of the cobalt is missing. Authorities are preparing to send a special team to an area where radiation has been detected, according to Eibenschutz.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said cobalt-60 is used to sterilize certain foods. The gamma rays won’t damage the product but will kill the bacteria.
The elements have been shielded during transport because if these rays are released into the environment, the radioactive material can harm people.
Cobalt-60 has also been considered by experts as one of the contenders for making radiological weapons known as dirty bombs. Bombs made with cobalt-60 are a serious threat because even a tiny portion of a gram releases a large number of high-energy gamma rays. According to a 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service, this type of material is harmful whether outside or inside the body.
The IAEA director warned in a prior speech that if a cobalt-60 dirty bomb detonated in a major city it could cause mass panic; as well as serious environmental and economic consequences.
A vehicle carrying unusually dangerous radioactive material was stolen in Mexico on Monday. The stolen truck was transporting nuclear waste from a hospital to a waste facility at the time it was taken. The vehicle was found on Wednesday; it has not been confirmed whether any of the cobalt was missing when the transporter was found.
By: Cherese Jackson (Virginia)