Cobalt-60 Stolen, Recovered in Mexico

Timothy Farnsworth

Mexican authorities recovered all of the radioactive material stolen from a truck in Mexico in early December, according to Mexico’s National Commission on Nuclear Safety and Safeguards.

The truck carrying cobalt-60, which is often used for cancer treatment, was stolen Dec. 2 in Tepojaco on its way from a hospital in Tijuana to a radioactive waste storage center, according to a Dec. 4 press release from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Mexican nuclear commission informed the IAEA that the truck was found two days later near the town of Hueypoxtla, about 23 kilometers from where it was stolen. The radioactive material was in a nearby field.

The material, which had been removed from its protective casing, was fully recovered by Mexican authorities on Dec. 10 using a robot, according to a Dec. 12 IAEA press release. The IAEA classifies cobalt-60 as a Category 1 substance, indicating a high risk to human health if it is not managed and secured properly. According to the agency, exposure to an unshielded Category 1 source for a few minutes could be fatal. The IAEA uses a five-level scale to categorize radioactive substances, with Category 1 being the most dangerous.

The theft attracted worldwide attention because experts say terrorist groups could use cobalt-60 and other Category 1 substances in a so-called dirty bomb. Although not having the same effect as a nuclear explosion, a bomb spreading Category 1 substances could cause mass panic, loss of life, and serious economic and environmental consequences. IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano specifically mentioned cobalt-60 and the potential use of radioactive material in dirty bombs in his March 27 opening remarks at the 2012 nuclear security summit in Seoul. The summit communiqué included recommendations on securing radiological sources. (See ACT, April 2012.)

There have been 615 incidents of theft or loss of radioactive material from 1993 to 2012, according to a 2013 IAEA summary. The agency said theft or loss of Category 1 materials is “rare,” with none reported in 2012.