MEXICO CITY — A 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 had been removed from its container, officials said, and one predicted that anyone involved in opening the box could be in grave danger of dying within days.
The cobalt-60 was left in a rural area about 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.
Commission physicist Mardonio Jimenez said it was the first time material like this had been stolen and extracted from its container. The only threat was to whoever opened the box and later discarded the pellets of high-intensity radioactive material that was being transported to a waste site. It had been used in medical equipment for radiation therapy.
"The person or people who took this out are in very great risk of dying," Jimenez said, adding that the normal survival time would be one to three days.
He said there was no word so far of anyone reporting to area hospitals with radiation exposure. He said those who exposed themselves to the pellets could not contaminate others.
Federal police and military units on the scene put up a cordon of 500 yards around the site.
The cargo truck hauling the cobalt-60 was stolen from a gas station early Monday in the neighboring state of Hidalgo, about 24 miles from where the material was recovered, Jimenez said. Authorities had put out an alert in six central states and the capital looking for it.
The truck was taking the cobalt to a nuclear waste facility in the state of Mexico, which is adjacent to Mexico City
The material was used in 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, Eibenschutz said.
Before the container was found, he said the thieves most likely wanted the white 2007 Volkswagen cargo vehicle with a moveable platform and crane.