The shipment originated from a hospital in Baja California and was destined for a waste storage facility in the state of Mexico. The materiel was identified as cobalt-60 and was used for radiation therapy at the hospital in the border city of Tijuana, across the US-Mexican border from San Diego, CA.
Of particular concern was the possibility that the stolen cobalt-60 could be used by terrorist groups to construct a 'dirty bomb'- a conventional explosive device that's capable of spreading radioactive materiel over a concentrated area.
According to local police, the 2.5 ton Volkswagen truck was stolen by armed men at a truck stop at Tepojaco on the outskirts of Mexico City last week.
Mexican Federal Police alerted the US Department of Homeland Security and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna while searching for the stolen radioactive materiel.
After a dragnet for the stolen truck and its cargo, a family discovered the stolen cobalt-60 and discarded medical equipment in a field near the rural village of Hueypoxtla north of Mexico City. The area was quickly cordoned off by Mexican troops as nuclear safety officials moved in to contain the radioactive materiel.
The material, which the International Atomic Energy Agency called "extremely dangerous," was found removed from its protective container. The pellets did not appear to have been damaged or broken up and there was no sign of contamination to the area, the agency said on Thursday, quoting Mexican nuclear safety officials.With police and military resources involved in combatting a bloody narco-insurgency between several Mexican-based drug cartels since 2006, some organized gangs have taken advantage of corrupt, inefficient or indifferent law enforcement by targeting trucks and freight trains and re-selling the stolen goods on a thriving black market. Between 2006 and 2010, trucking, logistics and insurance experts claim cargo thefts have increased as much as 40% annually south of the border- although more recent numbers indicate a slight decline.
Juan Eibenschutz, director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards, said it could take at least two days to safely get the material into a secure container and transport it to a waste site.
"It's a very delicate operation," Eibenschutz said. "What's important is that the material has been located and the place is being watched to guarantee no one gets close."
Eibenschutz said the pellets are inside an unbroken copper cylinder about 4-inches (10-centimers) long and 1.2-inches (3-centimeters) in diameter.
"What we are trying to do is put (the cobalt-60) in a receptacle that can contain its radioactivity and send it (to the nuclear waste site) to be confined," Eibenschutz said.
Alerts had been issued in six Mexican states and the capital when the cargo went missing, and also with customs officials to keep the truck from crossing the border, he said.
Officials believe that the thieves were unaware of the radioactive cargo and were likely after the truck from a company identified as Transportes Ortiz, which had an attached crane to hoist and unload cargo. Experts from Mexico's nuclear regulatory body said that if the cargo had in fact been tampered with and the thieves exposed to the cobalt-60 without any protective gear, it was likely they could die in a matter of days [or possibly gain cool superhuman powers- NANESB!].
After the radioactive materiel was discovered, six men were taken into custody in the neighboring state of Hidalgo on suspicion of their involvement in the theft. The suspects- who range from 16 to 38 years of age- underwent tests at a hospital in Hidalgo but showed no signs of radiation poisoning.