Armed thieves hijacked the truck while the driver was resting in the cab at a gas station just outside of Mexico City. Inside the white Volkswagen truck was a lead lined box containing medical equipment that contained cobalt 60. It's nasty stuff says Bob Emery. He's the radiation safety officer at UT/Health.
"If someone were in close proximity to the unshielded source they would receive a likely fatal dose in just a few minutes. " he says. And by close he means about a foot.
He says the good news is it was shielded inside that medical device, so exposing the material would've taken some doing..
"It's not like the source is going to fall out. They'd have to go out of their way to remove it from the shielded configuration. But if it is removed it could be very dangerous to individuals."
It's happened before when thieves have taken these machines for scrap. The worst case was reported in Brazil and a number of people dies and even more were sickened. But that was the secondary concern. The primary concern for authorities is that someone had stolen the material to make what's known as a dirty bomb. It's not a nuclear bomb.. but a conventional bomb packed with radioactive material.
Rice physicist Paul Padley who says here was enough in the cobalt teletherapy unit to make a big one.
"If you could blow it up and spread the material around you could contaminate an area the size of lower Manhattan with enough contamination that it would be like going into Chernobyl."
That is why Mexican authorities backed by the International Atomic Energy Agency launched a nationwide search for the truck and it's potentially dangerous cargo. So what was the point in stealing this thing? For that we go back to Bob Emery at UT.. Right after September 11th he wrote a paper on all the incidents of stolen radioactive material between 1956 and 2000.. he found that it happened one-hundred and thirteen times. That's the bad news. There's more bad news. It was usually stolen when the stuff was being transported which leads us to the good news in the report.
"We also found that fifty percent of the time when the things are stolen they are stolen with the vehicle. That suggests the people were going after the vehicle and may or may not have known the source was on there."
According to his study only 42 percent of the time the stolen stuff was recovered.