Commentary: Foolish thieves
Thieves hijacked a truck in early December carrying radioactive waste from a hospital in Tijuana, Mexico, to a waste storage center, and then abandoned the vehicle a few days later after having removed, then discarded, the radioactive material, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The truck loaded with Cobalt-60, which is used in radiology treatments, was stolen in Tepojaco in the state of Mexico, near Mexico City. The agency said police found the cargo near the town of Hueypoxla, about 25 miles from where the truck was hijacked.
“At the time the truck was stolen, the source was properly shielded,” the agency said, noting the cargo was perfectly stable, though that didn’t ease public safety fears.
According to FreightWatch International, carriers reported 312 cargo thefts in the country between July and September, with 102 occurring in July, and 105 each in August and September. In the state of Mexico, there were 29 incidents of theft during the three-month span — a number far lower than in Guanajuato, where there were 50 incidents, and Puebla, where 39 thefts occurred.
The organization noted a broad decrease in thefts, year over year, but it was hesitant to point to any improvement because of the unreliability of the carrier-reported data and the low reporting level of general crime in Mexico.
Even though the radioactive cargo had been removed from its safety casing, IAEA said “there is no indication that it has been damaged or broken up and no sign of contamination to the area.”
Cobalt-60, the agency said, is a Category 1 source, which means if not handled properly, “it would be likely to cause permanent injury to a person who handled it or who was otherwise in contact with it for more than a few minutes.” IAEA said close contact to the material for a longer period of time would be fatal.
“Mexican authorities are assessing potential radiation exposure to persons who may have been close to the unshielded source, and hospitals have been alerted to watch for symptoms of such exposure,” it said at the time of recovery. “People exposed to the source do not represent a contamination risk to others. Based on the information available, the Mexican authorities and the IAEA believe the general public is safe and will remain safe.”
The thieves, one assumes, will have no such luck.