7 December 2013, 10:58

Mexico's nuclear waste theft: radiation sickness instead of truck's crane for robbers

Mexico's nuclear waste theft: radiation sickness instead of truck's crane for robbers

Mexican authorities have detained the suspects in the theft of a truck carrying highly radioactive cobalt-60. They turned out to be the very same six people, who have been taken to a hospital in Pachuca with signs of radiation exposure. The thieves apparently stole the truck not because of its nuclear cargo, but its crane.

The suspects, five adults and a 16-year-old, experienced skin irritations and dizziness, but only one had nausea, a sign of possible radiation poisoning, said Hidalgo state Health Minister Pedro Luis Noble.

Though they may not have suffered radiation poisoning, the suspects nonetheless increased their cancer risk from being exposed to the strong gamma rays emitted by cobalt-60.

The six were tested at General Hospital in Pachucain, the capital of Hidalgo state. Police blocked access to the hospital. They were cleared and released early Friday evening, and then turned over to federal police for questioning.

The truck, which was carrying obsolete radiotherapy equipment from Tijuana, was stolen late Monday at gunpoint from a gas station by two men who tied up the driver. The cargo included cobalt-60, which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) calls "extremely dangerous," depending on quantity and exposure.

Police found the abandoned VW truck Wednesday in Hueypoxtla, Mexico state, about 24 miles from where it was stolen in Hildago. The thieves had removed the radioactive pellets from their protective container, but they did not appear to be damaged and there was no sign of contamination in the field where they were left, about a half mile from the truck, the IAEA said, citing Mexican nuclear authorities.

A Hidalgo state health official told the Notimex news agency the six, who live in the area, apparently had contact with the cobalt-60 about 12 hours after the truck was stolen.

Authorities continued Friday to remove the radioactive material from the field outside the farming community of 4,000 people.

"It's highly radioactive, so you cannot just go over and pick it up. It's going to take a while to pick it up," said Juan Eibenschutz, director general of Mexico's National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards.

Police said the thieves apparently stole the truck because of its movable platform and crane, not its nuclear cargo.

Read further:

- Six people hospitalized in Mexico with radiation symptoms

- Mexican police find radioactive material container

- Mexican truck with radioactive load stolen - IAEA

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