MEXICO CITY — After a frantic search across a wide section of central Mexico, authorities said Wednesday that they had found a stolen truck that was transporting a large amount of dangerous radioactive material, a substance that can be used in making dirty bombs.
The truck and its contents were found in the state of Mexico, about 20 miles north of the capital, not far from where they were stolen Monday. But the metal container with the radioactive material had been opened by the thieves, who then chucked it about half a mile from where they abandoned the truck, an official with the Mexican nuclear safety commission told the Los Angeles Times.
“The thief or thieves who did this are going to have very serious health problems,” said Mardonio Jimenez Rojas, operations supervisor for the National Commission on Nuclear Safety and Safeguards. He said all the radioactive material was accounted for.
His boss, Juan Eibenschutz, director general of the commission, later said that the thieves were “dead or about to die.”
Mexican military and police were cordoning off the area where the container of radioactive material was found to prevent other people from coming into contact with the lethal substance.
It was the end to a dramatic two-day episode in which thieves hijacked a truck transporting the dangerous cargo from a gasoline station in Hidalgo state, 30 miles north of Mexico City. Mexican officials said they believed the thieves were after the vehicle, a valuable truck outfitted with aluminum ramps and hydraulic machinery. But release of the radioactive material could have been disastrous.
The substance was a large amount of cobalt-60, which is used in radiation therapy to treat cancer, according to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. It was contained in medical equipment being transported from a state hospital in the northern border city of Tijuana to a nuclear waste storage center when stolen by two gunmen in the town of Tepojaco, an area that has seen a rash of truck thefts in recent months.
“At the time the truck was stolen, the (radioactive) source was properly shielded,” the IAEA said in a statement. “However, the source could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the shielding, or if it was damaged.”
That seemed to be what had happened.
Officials with the nuclear safety commission said that although the substance was sealed in lead, it could be quickly fatal if the seal were broken and someone came into direct contact with it.
They had sought the public’s help in recovering the material while at the same time cautioning against opening the protective shielding. A search was launched in six states across central Mexico and the sprawling capital.
The theft raised the specter of a series of nightmarish scenarios among those who feared the material would fall into the wrong hands in a country where violent drug and extortion gangs dominate many areas.
Although the substance was no longer viable for its original medical purpose, it could be used to make a radioactive dirty bomb, Jimenez of the nuclear security commission said in an interview earlier in the day.
However, he said such use was unlikely because of the expertise and precautions necessary.
“Manipulating a radioactive material of such intense activity can’t be done by just anybody,” Jimenez said. “It is not like handling pears and apples.”
Still, many experts believe a dirty bomb made using radioactive ingredients may be the weapon of choice for some groups because it is easier to create than many other explosive devices. Its value, however, is more in sowing panic or terror than in large-scale physical damage.
Another scenario could have been the thieves auctioning the cobalt-60 to the highest bidder, be it a cartel or terrorist organization. But Jimenez said that too would cause those handling the material to incur enormous risks.
This is the first time medical radioactive material of such high intensity has been stolen in Mexico, Jimenez said, but thefts of less-volatile industrial radioactive material happen annually. All have been recovered, he said.
The material recovered Wednesday measured about 3,000 curies, Jimenez said, while the industrial version is usually a fraction of that, meaning it breaks down much more quickly. A curie is a unit of activity of the substance measuring its rate of disintegration.
Mexico has a poor track record in the handling of this type of perilous waste. In the 1980s and ’90s, there were numerous cases of radioactive material ending up in junkyards and in construction materials.
In the state of Chihuahua in 1983, radioactive waste ended up being used in several tons of metal rods that went on to be employed in the construction of more than 17,000 buildings and homes, Pascal Beltran del Rio, a columnist for Excelsior newspaper, said Wednesday.
The nuclear waste dump where the truck was headed in Mexico state is surrounded by residential areas, where people for years have been complaining about health problems.