Photo of the containers the radioactive cobalt-60 is housed in

Well this can’t be good… The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency announced today that a pair of thieves in Mexico have stolen a truck containing highly dangerous atomic materials – just the sort of material that would be used with explosives to construct a radioactive dirty bomb. The lethal substance, cobalt-60, was was being transported in specially-designed sealed secure containers and had been previously used in radiation therapy to treat cancer.  The truck was transporting the material from a hospital in Tijuana to a waste center when it was stolen on Monday in the town of Tepojaco, just outside Mexico City. The drivers, who were sleeping in their crane-equippped 2007 Volkswagen truck at a gas station, told authorities they were held up by a pair of armed gunmen. Both the driver and his assistant were then taken to an empty lot where they were bound and told not to move. They heard one of the assailants use a walkie-talkie type device or phone to tell someone, “It’s done.”

Researchers say that even a fraction of a gram of cobalt-60 contains a huge number of dangerous high-energy gamma rays. According to a Congressional Research Center report, in Thailand in 2000, a disused cobalt-60 source was stored outdoors and accidentally purchased by two scrap collectors, who took it to a junkyard where it was cut open. Some workers suffered burn-like injuries, and eventually three people died and seven others suffered radiation injuries. Nearly 2,000 others who lived nearby were also exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

Update: Shortly after publication of this article, the truck and radioactive cobalt-60 was found abandoned, removed from its protective casing, about 25 miles from where it was stolen.  According to Mexican authorities:

“The people who handled it will have severe problems with radiation. They will, without a doubt, die.”

Authorities confirmed that they do not expect the thieves to live long.

Sources: NBC News, CNN, Wikipedia, International Atomic Energy Agency

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