Contaminated Suspects in Custody; Family Under Medical Watch
Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2013-2014
By Arianne Peterson
Hijackers who stole a truck transporting medical waste containing cobalt-60 in the early hours of Dec. 3 are likely contaminated after apparently removing the highly radioactive material from its protective lead casing before abandoning it in a vacant field. The AP reports that six suspects were arrested Dec. 5. They were temporarily hospitalized, were evidently cleared by health authorities, but are in federal police custody. One 16 year old under arrest showed signs of radiation poisoning. A family, as yet unidentified, that found the discarded medical device, from which about 60 grams of pelletized cobalt-60 had been removed, remains under close medical observation.
The truck, privately operated by a company called “Transportes Ortiz,” picked up the radioactive waste from a public hospital in Tijuana Nov. 28 and was near its destination, the National Institute for Nuclear Research in central Mexico, when thieves held up its driver and his assistant around 1:30 a.m. Dec. 3, at a gas station in Tepojaco, north of Mexico City. The driver told investigators he had been sleeping in the truck across from the gas station, waiting for the waste storage facility to open, when two armed men beat him, bound his hands and took off in the 2.5-ton cargo truck with its integrated crane.
Mexican authorities launched a two-day search for the vehicle across six states, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued public warnings about the extreme danger posed by cobalt-60. “It would probably be fatal to be close to this amount of unshielded radioactive material for a period in the range of a few minutes to an hour,” the IAEA said. The truck was recovered Dec. 4 near the small town of Hueypoxtla, 24 miles from where it was stolen. About 600 yards from the truck, officials found the cobalt-60 pellets, intact but outside of their lead-covered container. Members of the local family that recovered the container brought it inside their home and were in close proximity to the pellets themselves, prompting concerns about their radiation exposure.
Officials blamed the transport company for the theft, calling it negligent for sending the truck without a security escort, having the vehicle’s GPS tracking system turned off, and for parking along a busy highway where hold-ups are common. Jaime Aguirre Gomez, speaking for Mexico’s Commission for Nuclear Security and Safeguards, told CNN that police don’t believe the thieves knew they were stealing radioactive materials for a “dirty bomb,” and discounted suggestions that the thieves were terrorists. “They were interested in the crane, the vehicle,” Gomez said. Authorities suspect curiosity motivated the carjackers to open the crate containing the medical waste, despite its obvious radiation warnings.
On average, there are about six thefts of radioactive material reported in Mexico every year, with most of them appearing to have been unintentional. In a famous case from 1983, a hospital handyman pilfered a container full of radioactive cobalt and opened it, spilling the pellets along a roadway, and later scrapped the container with the rest of the pellets. As a result, about 600 tons of radioactive steel containing 300 curies of radioactive cobalt was distributed throughout Mexico and the US, becoming integrated in products such as restaurant table legs and steel rods for building projects. Mexican foundries now have radiation detectors to screen the materials they process.
The cobalt-60 being transported in this case was part of a piece of obsolete medical radiation equipment that is currently being replaced throughout Mexico’s public health system. Cobalt-60 emits gamma radiation that can pentetrate body tissues. It is used to treat inoperable tumors, like brain lesions. Industrially, it is used in tools like leveling devices and gauges, for the irradiating of spices and foods and for sterilizing medical instruments.
— NPR, BBC, Associated Press, and CNN, Dec. 4 and 5; New York Daily News, Time, and the Washington Post, Dec. 5; and Agence France Presse, Dec. 6, 2013