Stolen Radioactive Material Found in Mexico

7:21 PM, Dec 4, 2013   |    comments
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(USA TODAY) - Mexican authorities on Wednesday recovered a truck and the radioactive medical equipment it was hauling when gunmen stole it from a gas station two days ago.

The radioactive material, cobalt-60, was found about a half-mile from the truck and its empty protective lead container near Mexico City, said Juan Eibenschutz, director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards.

Radioactivity was detected in the area, which authorities cordoned off.

The radiotherapy material used in cancer treatment "could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the shielding, or if it was damaged," the International Atomic Energy Agency said earlier.

Direct exposure to the radioactive isotope would result in death within a few minutes, Eibenschutz told the Associated Press.

"This is a radioactive source that is very strong," Eibenschutz said, adding that it can be almost immediately fatal, depending on proximity. "The intensity is very big if it is broken."

Authorities have not said whether any suspects have been found, dead or alive.
Eibenschutz said nothing indicated that the thieves had targeted the material; they most likely wanted the white 2007 Volkswagen cargo vehicle with a moveable platform and crane.

The material could not be used to make a nuclear bomb, but could be used in a dirty bomb, a conventional explosive that disseminates radioactive material, he said.

Eibenschutz didn't know the exact weight, but that it was the largest amount stolen in recent memory, and the intensity of the material caused the alert. Local, state and federal authorities, including the military, are searching for the truck.

The material was used for obsolete radiation therapy equipment that is being replaced throughout Mexico's public health system. It was coming from the general hospital in Tijuana when it was stolen.

The truck marked "Transportes Ortiz" left Tijuana on Nov. 28 and was headed to the storage facility when it stopped to rest at a gas station in Tepojaco, in Hidalgo state north of Mexico City, driver Valentin Escamilla Ortiz told authorities.

He said he was sleeping in the truck when two men armed 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

The truck has a GPS locator but it wasn't active at the time of the theft.

"Our suspicion is that they had no idea what they had stolen. This is a area where robberies are common," Fernando Hidalgo, spokesman for the Hidalgo state prosecutor, told Reuters.

Authorities sent out an alert to six central states and the capital, and Mexican customs officials are on alert to prevent the truck from crossing the border.

All of the U.S. ports of entry have radiation detectors in place, and trucks crossing the border are routinely screened for radiation.

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