Hijacked radioactive material found in Mexico. How dangerous was it?

The cobalt-60 reportedly was found near the hijacked truck it was on but outside its protective, lead-lined container. The IAEA called the highly radioactive material 'extremely dangerous.'

This image shows a large box that was part of the cargo of a stolen truck hauling medical equipment with dangerous radioactive material, in Tepojaco, Hidalgo state, north of Mexico City. Officials recovered the truck and the stolen goods on Wednesday.

The highly radioactive medical material stolen early Tuesday morning in a truck hijacking in Mexico has been recovered, Mexican officials said Wednesday, apparently allaying one concern expressed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the nuclear material might be used by a terrorist in a “dirty bomb.”

The radioactive isotope, cobalt-60, was found along with the truck that was hijacked as it was transporting the dangerous substance from a Tijuana hospital to a nuclear storage facility near Mexico City.

However the cobalt-60 reportedly was found outside of its lead-lined protective container, and radiation was detected in the area, spotlighting an equally pressing IAEA concern: the security of radioactive materials used in medical and research facilities.

In a statement issued at the time of the theft, the IAEA said, “the source [cobalt-60] was properly shielded. However, the source could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the shielding, or if it was damaged.”

“These materials are in use in facilities in countries all over the world,” adds Robert Wagner, director of Nuclear Medicine at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois. “There are usually many precautions put in place to keep this material secure.”

However, simple mistakes based on ignorance can lead to tragic results, points out Dr. Wagner.

Mishandling of the small, highly portable, and largely unfamiliar pieces of equipment used to house these medical isotopes, have been the source of many of the industry’s worst disasters.

Thirty years ago this week, scrap metal workers at a junkyard in Ciudad Juarez broke open a metal teletherapy container housing some 6,000 one millimeter pellets with cobalt-60. The pellets were dispersed throughout the junkyard and eventually made their way into numerous pieces of metal furniture and building materials, later transported into the US. Once authorities were alerted, all pieces of furniture were recalled and over 100 homes that had utilized the metal beams had to be destroyed.

In 1987, a container housing radioactive material was found at an abandoned private therapy clinic in Goiania, Brazil. This time it was cesium-137, left behind when the institute moved to another location. The radioactive material was handled and displayed by dozens of villagers. More than 200 people were exposed and four later died.

In 2010, in Mayapuri, India, a Gammacell 220 research irradiator, from Delhi University, was auctioned to a scrap metal dealer. The cobalt-60 radioactive source was sold off as well.

The dealer cut the source into multiple pieces, one of which was actually taken home by a worker, who put it in his wallet. While all the pieces were subsequently retrieved and turned over to a nuclear power station, eight individuals suffered radiation poisoning and one died.

In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is one of many federal, state and local agencies that oversee the medical and research use of radioactive materials. The IAEA has produced  numerous guidelines for the handling of radioactive materials in research and medical settings.

Before the hijacked truck and cobalt-60 were found Wednesday, Mexican authorities said they suspected the hijackers were more interested in the truck itself, rather than its cargo.

While Wagner would not comment on the circumstances of the Mexican theft, he adds, “clearly correct guidelines for handling these materials are not always followed.”

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