Men who took device are probably dead or dying
Men who took device are probably dead or dying
More Serious than Reported (December 5)
Mexican soldiers set up a safety perimeter around a cancer-treating device containing dangerous radioactive material that was stolen along with a truck from a gas station.
The people who stole the truck and removed the device from a steel-reinforced wooden box and left it in a rural area north of Mexico City are probably already dead or dying, the national nuclear safety board said.
But the danger of contamination is minimal because the area where the device was found is so uninhabited, it added. No evacuations were necessary.
There was no immediate word on who might have stolen the truck. It was on its way to dispose of the disused medical device at a nuclear storage facility.
Experts are trying to figure out the best way to recover the device safely, the National Commission for Nuclear Safety and Safeguards (CNSNS) said in a statement Wednesday evening.
The thieves apparently just wanted the truck, which was stolen Monday, without knowing about the cargo it carried, officials said.
The device containing cobalt-60 was taken out of its container and left hundreds of meters (yards) from the truck in Hueypoxtla, said Mardonio Jimenez, operations director at the CNSNS.
"It's almost absolutely certain that whoever removed this material by hand is either already dead or about to die," CNSNS director Juan Eibenschutz told Milenio television.
Eibenschutz said the transport company failed to live up to its commitment, saying the truck lacked a tracking device or proper security despite the firm's experience. He said the matter should be investigated.
The white Volkswagen Worker truck was transporting the device from a hospital in the northwestern city of Tijuana when it was stolen at a service station in central Hidalgo state.
The vehicle was supposed to deliver the material to a radioactive waste disposal facility in the central state named Mexico.
The International Atomic Energy Agency warned that the material was "extremely dangerous" if removed from its shielding. Experts also said the 60 grams of cobalt-60 inside it was enough to make a "dirty bomb", designed to spread radioactivity.
Authorities had searched for the truck in six states and the capital, delivering radio messages for people to call an emergency number in case they saw the truck.
The driver told investigators that two gunmen approached him at a Pemex service station, tied him up and drove away with the truck, according to a text of the testimony shown by the Hidalgo state prosecutor's office.
The manager of the Pemex service station, an hour's drive north of Mexico City, told AFP the driver appeared to have parked across the street to rest overnight.
The material was on its way to the Radioactive Waste Storage Center in Maquixco, Mexico state. The facility is surrounded by a white fence topped with barbed wire, but no armed guards were visible outside, an AFP correspondent said.
An official from the center said the truck driver had been waiting for the facility to open at 8:00 am on Tuesday.
Mexico's drug cartels have diversified their illegal activities in recent years, stealing oil and minerals, but officials have not said who the cobalt-60 thieves might be.
'Sufficient' for dirty bomb
Experts have long warned about the risks posed by the large amounts of radioactive material held in hospitals, university campuses and factories, often with little or no security measures to prevent them being stolen.
In an incident involving a teletherapy device in Thailand in 2000, 425 Curies -- the measure of radioactivity -- of cobalt-60 was sufficient to make 10 people very ill, three of whom died, according to the IAEA.
The equipment stolen in Mexico contained nearly 3,000 Curies, CNSNS radiological security director Jaime Aguirre Gomez told AFP.
Cobalt-60 is a radioactive isotope of the metallic element cobalt and the gamma rays it emits destroy tumors
Note: While some news reports say the material was found with the truck, other reputable sources say the truck is empty. Universal is reporting the truck was tampered with but that authorities are being secretive if the material was taken, or not. According to Milenio the National Nuclear Safety Commission of the country, Juan Eibenschutz, initially reported the truck was open and empty, later he was reported as saying the cobalt was dangerous in a mile radius of where it was found in the truck.....
Mexican authorities on Wednesday recovered a truck and the radioactive medical equipment it was hauling to a waste facility 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 waited 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 were 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.
Such unwitting thefts of radioactive materials "are not uncommon," IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor told NBC News.
"In some cases, for example, radioactive sources have ended up being sold as scrap, causing serious health consequences for people who unknowingly come into contact with it," he said.
The theft of a truck with a dangerous medical radioactive material in Hidalgo, in central Mexico, Wednesday generated alert Mexican authorities, U.S. and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) .
Mexican authorities reported to the IAEA that the truck carrying cobalt-60 used in therapy device of a hospital in the city of Tijuana, was stolen in the early hours of December 2 when it was transported to neighboring State of Mexico.
"At the time of the theft of the truck, the source (radioactive) was properly sealed," the IAEA a statement . "However, the source can be extremely dangerous to a person if the seals are removed, or if they are damaged."
Mexico alerted the IAEA theft following international protocol for such incidents , said Jaime Aguirre Gomez, deputy director of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards.
The Department of Homeland Security United States said Wednesday that it is working with their Mexican counterparts in the investigation of the theft.
Radioactive material was used in radiotherapy for cancer treatment at a hospital in Tijuana, in northern Mexico, and was no longer in use, he said.
The shield that protects the cobalt-60 is designed so that the radioactive source is difficult to remove, Aguirre said. The housing is designed not to be easily opened or perforated. Cobalt-60 can be used for both medical and industrial purposes, he said.
The vehicle left the Tijuana November 28, on a planned travel distance of about 2,750 kilometers. The driver, Valentin Ortiz Escamilla said he stopped in a parking lot of a gas station to rest when at approximately 01:30 pm (local) two men assaulted him and forced him out of the truck, Notimex reported.
Once it was reported stolen, the Attorney General indicated that Hidalgo initiated an operation to search for the vehicle and the stolen material in which the governments of Querétaro and Mexico State, Hidalgo collaborated.CNN Mexico-US Today-Associated Press
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