MEXICO CITY — A missing shipment of radioactive cobalt-60 was found Wednesday near where the stolen truck transporting the material was abandoned in central Mexico, the country’s nuclear safety director said.
The highly radioactive material had been removed from its container, officials said, and one predicted that anyone involved in opening the box could be in grave danger of dying within days.
The cobalt-60 was left in a rural area about half a mile from Hueypoxtla, an agricultural town of about 4,000 people, but it posed no threat or a need for an evacuation, said Juan Eibenschutz, director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards.
“Fortunately there are no people where the source of radioactivity is,” Eibenschutz said.
Commission physicist Mardonio Jimenez said it was the first time cobalt-60 had been stolen and extracted from its container. The only threat was to whoever opened the box and later discarded the pellets of high-intensity radioactive material that was being transported to a waste site. It had been used in medical equipment for radiation therapy. “The person or people who took this out are in very great risk of dying,” Jimenez said, adding that the normal survival rate would be between one and three days.
He said there was no word so far of anyone reporting to area hospitals with radiation exposure. He said those who exposed themselves to the pellets could not contaminate others.
Federal police and military units on the scene put up a cordon of 500 yards around the site. The cargo truck hauling the cobalt-60 was stolen from a gas station early Tuesday in the neighboring state of Hidalgo, about 24 miles from where the material was recovered, Jimenez said. Authorities had put out an alert in six central states and the capital looking for it.
The truck was taking the cobalt to a nuclear waste facility in the state of Mexico, which is adjacent to Mexico City
The material was used in obsolete radiation therapy equipment that is being replaced throughout Mexico’s public health system. It was coming from the general hospital in the northern border city of Tijuana, Eibenshutz said.
Before the container was found, he said the thieves most likely wanted the white 2007 Volkswagen cargo vehicle with a moveable platform and crane.
Eibenschutz said there was nothing to indicate the theft of the cobalt was intentional or in any way intended for an act of terrorism.
On average, a half dozen thefts of radioactive materials are reported in Mexico each year and none have proven to be aimed at the cargo itself, he said.
According to the complaint of this theft, a truck marked “Transportes Ortiz” left Tijuana on Nov. 28 and was headed to the storage facility when the driver stopped to rest at a gas station in Tepojaco, in Hidalgo state north of Mexico City.
The driver, Valentin Escamilla Ortiz, told authorities he was sleeping in the truck when two men with a gun approached about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday. They made him get out, tied his hands and feet and left him in a vacant lot nearby.
When he was able to free himself, he ran back to the gas station to get help.
Eibenschutz said the transport company did not follow proper procedures and should have had GPS and security with the truck.
“The driver also lacked common sense because he decided to park along a highway so he could sleep,” Eibenschutz said.
Notice about comments:
The Post and Courier is pleased to offer readers the enhanced ability to comment on stories. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point.