Radioactive material recovered from stolen truck in Mexico

MEXICO CITY -- Six people being tested for possible radiation exposure in a hospital in central Mexico are suspects in the theft of highly radioactive cobalt-60, a government official said Friday.

The official said the six were arrested Thursday and taken to the general hospital in Pachuca for observation and testing for radiation exposure. Once they are cleared, they will be turned over to federal authorities in connection with the case of a cargo truck stolen Monday at gunpoint that was carrying the extremely dangerous material.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Hidalgo state Health Minister Pedro Luis Noble said Friday that the six suffered from skin irritations and dizziness, but that none are in grave condition and may be released soon. Only one was vomiting, a sign of radiation poisoning.

But based on the tests, "none are showing immediate signs of radiation poisoning," Noble told Foro TV.

The cobalt-60 theft triggered alerts in six Mexican states and Mexico City, as well as international notifications to the U.S. and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. It raised concerns that the material could have been stolen to make a dirty bomb, a conventional explosive that disseminates radioactive material.

The missing shipment of radioactive cobalt-60 was found Wednesday near where the stolen truck transporting the material was abandoned in central Mexico, the country's nuclear safety director said.

The highly radioactive material was found in an empty lot about a half a mile from Hueypoxtla, an agricultural town of about 4,000 people, but it posed no threat or a need for an evacuation, said Juan Eibenschutz, director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards.

"Fortunately there are no people where the source of radioactivity is," Eibenschutz said.

U.S. law enforcement sources told CBS the truck and radioactive material had been recovered, but that the casing shielding the radioactive material had been tampered with.

The truck hauling the extremely dangerous cobalt-60 that had been used in medical equipment was stolen from a gas station early Tuesday, and authorities had put out an alert in six central states and the capital looking for it. Police and the military joined in the hunt.

The truck was taking the cobalt to a nuclear waste facility in the state of Mexico, which is adjacent to Mexico City.

Eibenschutz said direct exposure to cobalt-60 could result in death within a few minutes. He said hospitals near the area were asked to report if they treated anyone exposed to radioactivity.

"This is a radioactive source that is very strong," Eibenschutz told The Associated Press.

The material was used for obsolete radiation therapy equipment that is being replaced throughout Mexico's public health system. It was coming from the general hospital in the northern border city of Tijuana, Eibenshutz said.  The thieves most likely wanted the white 2007 Volkswagen cargo vehicle with a moveable platform and crane.

There are an average of a half-dozen reported thefts of radioactive material in Mexico each year, Eibenschutz said, and none have proven to be intentional, meaning the thieves were not after the material. He said in all cases so far, they were after the containers or vehicles.

Such unintentional thefts are not uncommon, said an official familiar with cases reported by International Atomic Energy Agency member states, who was not authorized to comment on the case. In some cases, radioactive sources have ended up being sold as scrap, causing serious harm to people who unknowingly come into contact with it.

In a famous case in the 1970s of stolen radioactive material in Mexico, one thief died and the other was injured when they opened the container, he said. The container was junked and sold to a foundry, where it contaminated some of the steel reinforcement bar that was made there. Eibenschutz said all foundries in Mexico now have equipment to detect radioactive material.

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