MEXICO CITY — The theft of a truck carrying radioactive material, the kind used in hospitals and dirty bombs, unnerved Mexico and set off a two-day hunt before the vehicle and its potentially lethal contents were found Wednesday night.
The truck had been taking the material, cobalt-60, from an obsolete radiotherapy machine at a public hospital in Tijuana to a storage repository in central Mexico. It was in a sealed container on the bed of the truck when armed men hijacked the vehicle at a gas station Monday.
It was unclear whether the thieves were after the truck, a 2007 Volkswagen Worker, or the cobalt-60, which is extremely dangerous and can kill a person exposed to it directly in a matter of minutes. The theft prompted the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear monitor of the United Nations, to issue an alert.
Mardonio Jiménez, a physicist and top-ranking official with Mexico’s nuclear-safety commission, said the thieves had opened the box holding the sealed container, and appeared to have carried it several hundred yards from the truck and opened it.
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The only threat was to whoever opened the box and handled the material, which was recovered. “The person or people who took this out are in very great risk of dying,” he said, adding that the normal survival rate would be between one and three days.
He said there was no word so far of anyone reporting to area hospitals with radiation exposure. He said those who were exposed could not contaminate others.
A wide area of Hueypoxtla, a town 40 miles north of Mexico City where the truck was found, has been cordoned off but Jiménez said there was no immediate public-health threat.
The episode raised concerns about securing discarded nuclear material. It was unclear what, if any, security precautions had been taken in transporting the material, but truck hijackings are common in Mexico and terrorists are known to be interested in cobalt-60.
A U.S. military official said that, while the Pentagon was monitoring the Mexico situation closely, the theft did not appear to be connected to terrorist activity.
The material is one of the ingredients commonly cited as a possible component of a dirty bomb, a combination of explosives and radioactive material.
Counterterrorism officials have said such weapons are far more useful in spreading panic than in harming people. Just scattering a radioactive isotope in a densely populated area would have the same effect, but the person delivering the isotope would probably receive a large dose.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States made an effort to ensure that cobalt-60 and other isotopes commonly used in medicine and industry were better protected against theft.
The authorities in Mexico said the truck left Tijuana on Nov. 28 en route to a repository 30 miles northeast of Mexico City. When it stopped at a gas station, two armed men ordered the driver out of the truck, tied him up and made off with the truck.
It was not the first time a dangerous cargo such as cobalt-60 had been seized by outlaws in Mexico or raised public-health alarms. In the 1980s, discarded cobalt-60 in Ciudad Juárez near the U.S. border was found to have been used in making reinforcing rods for construction, causing an international health scare.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.