This Wednesday the massive search for a stolen truck containing 60 grams of the highly radioactive element Cobalt-60 that stretched across six states in Mexico came to an end when the materials were found in an empty lot not far from a small farming town, and rumored to be within less than 100 yards distant from a nursery school. The hunt for the missing truck and its highly lethal contents began early on Monday, when a truck driver in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, who was sleeping next to a gas station in the cab of his vehicle, was car-jacked at gunpoint by two masked men. While authorities believe that the truck, a 2007 model Volkswagen with an attached crane, was the actual target of the robbery, there were concerns that the incredibly dangerous material could be readily turned into a ‘dirty bomb.’ Dirty bombs are otherwise conventional explosives to which radioactive materials have been added, creating a devastating long-term effect on the affected area. Fortunately, there have been no such attacks using such weapons as of yet, but radioactive elements and their transportation remain closely monitored internationally to prevent the loss and misuse of such dangerous items. The Cobalt-60 that had been stolen in this incident, while producing substantially more radiation than another batch that had killed three persons in Thailand thirteen years ago, would likely have not caused much additional damage in relation to a conventional detonation but could inspire a much wider, and deadlier, panic.
As exposure to Cobalt-60 is highly toxic, authorities not only worried for the safety of citizens potentially harmed in a potential dirty bomb terror attack, but for also those no doubt already unwittingly exposed to the materials simply by passing near the missing canister as well as the criminals who unknowingly had taken the deadly take home. There have been numerous similar incidents in the past thirty years where individuals who were ignorant of the risks associated with such materials have accidently stolen or scavenged radioactive elements. The first was in Brazil in 1987, where a group of men salvaged what they thought to be innocuous waste metal that simply originated from a hospital however found that the metal was actually part of an X-ray machine, resulting in the hospitalization, and in some cases, deaths of their families and neighbors. The Cobalt-60 that had temporarily vanished this week was also medical waste, this time in transit to its’ planned proper disposed at a facility in central Mexico. Despite its’ rediscovery, this plan has been even more disrupted by the removal of the radioactive Cobalt-60 pellets from their container. It will take several days for the material to be properly re-contained and sent on to its disposal. In the meantime authorities are keeping a watch out at clinics in the region, as the thieves have likely exposed themselves to radiation and are likely ill. Six men have already been detained in relation to this theft, and one, a sixteen year old boy, has shown signs of radiation sickness.