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Stolen cobalt-60 found in Mexico; curious thieves likely doomed

December 6, 2013

WPLogo

MEXICO CITY — The day after a load of stolen radioactive material was found in a field, Mexican authorities had formed a perimeter around the area and were measuring for contamination as they planned the recovery process Thursday, according to Mexican news reports.

Federal police and soldiers formed a cordon of several hundred yards around the highly radioactive container of cobalt-60, stolen earlier in the week in a carjacking as the material was being moved from a public hospital in the border town of Tijuana to a storage facility in central Mexico, news reports said.

The carjackers, who set off international alarm bells by absconding with the material, most likely had no idea what they were stealing and will probably die soon from exposure, Mexican authorities said at the end of a brief national scare.

The prospect that material that could be used in a radioactive dirty bomb had gone missing sparked an urgent two-day hunt, which concluded Wednesday afternoon when the cobalt-60, used in hospital radiotherapy machines, was found along with the stolen Volkswagen truck. Mexican officials said no public health risk remained, although one family who lived nearby may have been exposed.

The driver of the cargo truck and his assistant worked for a licensed private company, and the lethal radioactive substance was sealed in the back, according to news reports.

The truck, equipped with a crane, was nearing its destination early Tuesday morning, several hours before the storage facility opened. While waiting for daybreak at a gas station in the state of Hidalgo, north of Mexico City, the drivers were jumped by two gunmen who beat them and stole the truck, said Mardonio Jiménez, a physicist and high-ranking official with Mexico’s nuclear safety commission.

With lethal radioactive material on the loose, Mexican authorities posted a lookout across six states. The International Atomic Energy Agency warned that the material “could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed” from its casing.

“I believe, definitely, that the thieves did not know what they had,” Jiménez said. “They were interested in the crane, in the vehicle.”

The cobalt-60 was found, removed from its casing, in a rural area near the town of Hueypoxtla, about 25 miles from where the truck was stolen. Jiménez said he suspected that curiosity got the better of the thieves, and they opened the box. So far the carjackers have not been arrested, but authorities expect they will not live long.

“The people who handled it will have severe problems with radiation,” he said. “They will, without a doubt, die.”

© 2013, The Washington Post

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