By Alexander Smith, NBC News contributor
SAN DIEGO – A truck carrying “extremely dangerous” radioactive material has been stolen in Mexico, authorities said Wednesday.
The vehicle was transporting the radioactive isotope cobalt-60 from a hospital where it was being used for radiotherapy, the International Atomic Energy Agency said.
Experts said that if the material gets into the wrong hands it could be turned into a “dirty bomb” and potentially spread cancer-causing radiation across a wide area.
“At the time the truck was stolen, the source was properly shielded,” the IAEA said in a statement. “However, the source could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the shielding, or if it was damaged.”
The vehicle carrying the cobalt-60 was a 2.5-ton Volkswagen truck with an integrated crane, Mexico’s National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards (CNSNS) said. The truck was stolen on Monday at a gas station in Tepojaco, near Mexico City.
Mexico’s federal, state, and local authorities are now involved in a widespread and coordinated hunt for the vehicle across several states, the CNSNS said.
Jennifer Cole, head of emergency management at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank, said the cobalt-60 would be stored in a sealed chamber, known as a “sealed source.”
In the wrong hands, this can be turned into a “dirty bomb,” she said.
“What happens with a dirty bomb is the material is exploded and each piece of shrapnel gives off radiation,” she said. “Therefore it is over a large area and much harder to clear up.
“More than anything, this can cause panic as there’s a huge amount of fear when radiation or radioactive material is mentioned.”
According to safety guidelines on the IAEA website, a “malevolent use of radioactive sources…could also cause significant social, psychological and economic impacts.”
There also are many documented cases of people unwittingly stealing or acquiring radioactive material and then becoming ill or dying.
IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor told NBC News: “Such thefts are not uncommon, and the thieves do not necessarily know what they have in their possession in addition to the vehicle that may have been the original target.
“In some cases, for example, radioactive sources have ended up being sold as scrap, causing serious health consequences for people who unknowingly come into contact with it.”