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‘Extremely dangerous’ radioactive material stolen in Mexico: IAEA upsdated

The truck had been found with the material on 12/04/2013 in Mexico

Thieves in Mexico have stolen a truck carrying “extremely dangerous” radioactive material used in medical treatment, the UN atomic watchdog said Wednesday.

The vehicle was transporting a “teletherapy source” containing cobalt-60 from a hospital in the northern city of Tijuana to a radioactive waste storage center when it was stolen in Tepojaco near Mexico City on Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said.

“At the time the truck was stolen, the source was properly shielded. However, the source could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the shielding, or if it was damaged,” an IAEA statement said.

The IAEA said it was informed about the theft by Mexico’s National Commission for Nuclear Safety and Safeguards (CNSNS), which said the radioactive material posed no risk provided the container was not broken or tampered with. It said the truck was stolen at a service station.

A search was underway in six Mexican states and in Mexico City for the white Volkswagen Worker truck, the CNSNS said in a statement. It gave phone numbers for anyone with information to call and released photos of the steel-reinforced wooden crate carrying the material.

Experts have long warned about the risks posed by the large amounts of radioactive material held in hospitals, university campuses and factories, often with little or no security measures to prevent them being stolen.

Such material is highly dangerous to human health if not properly handled. More worryingly though, such material could in theory be put in a so-called “dirty bomb” — an explosive device spreading the radioactive material over a wide area.

‘Tip of the iceberg’

Last year alone, the IAEA recorded 17 cases of illegal possession and attempts to sell nuclear materials and 24 incidents of theft or loss. It says this is the “tip of the iceberg”.

Many cases have involved former parts of the Soviet Union, such as Chechnya, Georgia and Moldova – where in 2011 several people were arrested trying to sell weapons-grade uranium. But the problem is not confined to Eastern European states

In an incident showing how dangerous such materials are, in Goiania, Brazil in 1987 a machine containing a substance similar to cobalt-60, caesium-137, was left lying around after a cancer unit of a hospital moved.

Thinking it might have scrap value, two people dismantled the equipment and when the radioactive material started glowing blue in the dark it was shown off around the local community as a curiosity.

Eighty-five houses were contaminated and 249 people needed medical treatment. Twenty-eight people suffered radiation burns and four died including a six-year-girl who handled the substance while eating.

Major international efforts have been made since the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States to prevent nuclear material falling into the wrong hands.

A report issued in July by the Arms Control Association and the Partnership for Global Security said progress had been made reducing the threat but that “significant” work remained.

Al Jazeera and AFP

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