MEXICO CITY — The carjackers who set off international alarm bells by absconding with a truckload of highly radioactive material most likely had no idea what they were stealing and will probably die soon from exposure, Mexican authorities said at the end of a brief national scare.
The prospect that material that could be used in a radioactive dirty bomb had gone missing sparked an urgent two-day hunt that concluded when the material, cobalt-60, used in hospital radiotherapy machines, was found Wednesday afternoon along with the stolen Volkswagen truck. Mexican officials said no public health risk remained.
Mexican officials say two thieves probably did not know they had stolen deadly radioactive material.
The robbery occurred as the cobalt-60 was being driven from a public hospital in the border town of Tijuana to a storage facility in central Mexico. The driver and his assistant worked for a licensed private company, and the lethal radioactive substance was sealed in the back.
The cargo truck, equipped with a crane, was nearing its destination in the darkness early Tuesday, several hours before the storage facility opened. While waiting for daybreak at a gas station in the state of Hidalgo, north of Mexico City, the drivers were jumped by two gunmen who beat them and stole the truck, said Mardonio Jimenez, a physicist and high-ranking official with Mexico’s nuclear safety commission.
With lethal radioactive material on the loose, Mexican authorities put out a look-out across six states. The International Atomic Energy Agency warned that the material “could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed” from its casing.
“I believe, definitely, that the thieves did not know what they had; they were interested in the crane, in the vehicle,” Jimenez said.
The cobalt-60 was found, removed from its casing, in a rural area near the town of Hueypoxtla about 25 miles from where the truck was stolen. Jimenez suspected that curiosity got the better of the thieves and they opened the box. So far the carjackers have not been arrested, but authorities expect they will not live long.
“The people who handled it will have severe problems with radiation,” he said. “They will, without a doubt, die.”