December 5, 2013 at 12:07 AM CST - Updated July 21 at 9:25 AM
By OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ, AP
MEXICO CITY (AP) — A missing shipment of radioactive cobalt-60 was found Wednesday near where the stolen truck transporting the material was abandoned in central Mexico state, the country's nuclear safety director said.
The highly radioactive material had been removed from its shipping container, officials said, and one predicted that anyone involved in opening the box would be dead within three days.
The cobalt-60l was found in an empty lot about a kilometer (a 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 container 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 this took out are in very great risk of dying," Jimenez 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 whoever exposed themselves to the pellets could not contaminate others.
Federal police and military units on the scene put up a cordon of 500 meters (yards) around the site.
The cargo truck hauling the cobalt-60 was stolen from a gas station early Tuesday in the neighboring state of Hidalgo, about 40 kilometers (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.
Eibenschutz said earlier that direct exposure to cobalt-60 could result in death within a few minutes, but Jimenez said the pellets were sealed.
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, Eibenshutz 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.
Eibenschutz said there was nothing to indicate the theft of the cobalt was intentional or in any way intended for an act of terrorism.
The truck marked "Transportes Ortiz" left Tijuana on Nov. 28 and was headed to the storage facility when the driver stopped to rest at a gas station in Tepojaco, in Hidalgo state north of Mexico City.
The driver, Valentin Escamilla Ortiz, told authorities he was sleeping in the truck when two men with a gun approached about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday. They made him get out, tied his hands and feet and left him in a vacant lot nearby.
When he was able to free himself, he ran back to the gas station to get help.
On average, a half dozen thefts of radioactive materials are reported in Mexico each year and none have proven to be aimed at the cargo, Eibenschutz said. He said that in all the cases the thieves were after shipping containers or the vehicles.
Unintentional thefts of radioactive materials are not uncommon, said an official familiar with cases reported by International Atomic Energy Agency member states, who was not authorized to comment on the case. In some cases, radioactive sources have ended up being sold as scrap, causing serious harm to people who unknowingly come into contact with it.
In a Mexican case in the 1970s, one thief died and the other was injured when they opened a container holding radioactive material, he said.
The container was junked and sold to a foundry, where it contaminated some steel reinforcement bars made there. Eibenschutz said all foundries in Mexico now have equipment to detect radioactive material.
Associated Press writers Emilio Lopez in Pachuca, Mexico; Katherine Corcoran in Mexico City; Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.