Mexican troops have recovered a stolen shipment of radioactive Cobalt-60 isotope, abandoned by truck thieves who face the risk of a slow lingering death from radiation poisoning.
A truck carrying a substantial quantity of the radioactive isotope Cobalt-60 from a hospital in Tijuana to a waste centre was robbed by armed bandits in central Mexico on Monday. Its drivers were sleeping at a petrol station at the time of the carjacking, which bears the hallmarks of an opportunistic theft by crooks who had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
The stolen Volkswagen cargo truck was found abandoned 40 km (25 miles) from the scene of the robbery in a field near the farm town of Hueypoxtla on Wednesday with the stolen Cobalt-60 found on the ground, outside its protective shielding.
Mexican officials are playing down the possibility of health risk to emergency responders or the local population. The area surrounding the find has been cordoned off while experts conduct a clean-up operation that's likely to take around two days, the Washington Post reports.
However the thieves who robbed the truck before opening the container with the Cobalt-60 are likely to get very sick, according to nuclear scientists.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said the “extremely dangerous” cargo of hospital radiotherapy pellets had been removed from its protective casing. There was "no indication that it has been damaged or broken up” and “no sign of contamination to the area”.
Its unclear just how long the carjackers handled the material or how closely they looked at it but the IAEA notes it “would probably be fatal to be close to this amount of unshielded radioactive material for a period in the range of a few minutes to an hour”.
It would appear that if the miscreants handled the pellets for any length of time they may well have sustained a deadly dose of radiation.
CNN reports that the stolen truck was carrying around 40 grams of the Cobalt-60, a beta and gamma radiation source with a half-life of five years. Gamma radiation is especially dangerous as it penetrates the human body easily to ionise internal tissue.
The truck thieves "probably had no idea what they were stealing and will probably die soon from radiation exposure,” according to nuclear safety experts, RT reports.
It is "absolutely certain that whoever removed this material by hand is either already dead or about to die," Juan Eibenschutz, director of Mexico's CNSNS nuclear safety authority, told Milenio television.
Local hospitals are on the look out for anyone presenting themselves with symptoms of radiation exposure, the Daily Telegraph adds.
Eibenschutz said the pellets were held inside an unbroken copper cylinder about 4-inches (10 cm) long and 1.2-inches (3 cm) in diameter, AP reports.
The whole incident is not unprecedented. A hospital handyman turned thief exposed neighbours in a Cuidad Juárez neighbourhood to radiation poisoning for months starting in December 1983 after he stole an unmarked capsule from an obsolete radiotherapy machine that contained a dangerous batch of Cobalt-60.
Much of the contamination ended up on a local junkyard and the whole mess was only discovered after contaminated steel was shipped from local factories to the US. ®