Nuclear experts have begun the delicate task of recovering a stolen shipment of highly radioactive cobalt-60 abandoned in a Mexican field.
The material, which the International Atomic Energy Agency called “extremely dangerous”, was found removed from its protective container. The pellets did not appear to have been damaged or broken up and there was no sign of contamination to the area, the agency said.
A firefighter takes photographs of the radiation head that was part of a radiation therapy machine, in the patio of the family who found the abandoned radiation head in a nearby field.
Juan Eibenschutz, director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards, said it could take at least two days to safely get the material into a secure container and transport it to a waste site.
“It’s a very delicate operation,” he said. “What’s important is that the material has been located and the place is being watched to guarantee no one gets close.”
He said the pellets were inside an unbroken copper cylinder about 4ins long and 1.2ins in diameter.
The missing shipment of radioactive cobalt-60 was found on Wednesday near where the stolen truck transporting the material was abandoned in central Mexico state.
The atomic energy agency said it has an activity of 3,000 curries, or Category 1, meaning “it would probably be fatal to be close to this amount of unshielded radioactive material for a period in the range of a few minutes to an hour”.
Hospitals were on alert for people with radiation exposure, though none had so far reported.
Mardonio Jimenez, a physicist for Mexico’s nuclear safety commission, said those who exposed themselves to the pellets could not contaminate others.
A family that found the empty container that had been used for the radioactive material was under medical observation, hesaid. Hueypoxtla mayor Javier Santillan later said the family suffered no harm.
“The container is not radioactive and it wasn’t contaminated,” Mr Eibenschutz said.
The cobalt-60 that was missing for nearly two days was left in a rural area about half a mile from Hueypoxtla, a farm town of about 4,000 people. Officials said it posed no threat to the residents and there was no evacuation. Police and military units on the scene put up a 500-yard armed cordon around the site.
“What we are trying to do is put (the cobalt-60) in a receptacle that can contain its radioactivity and send it (to the nuclear waste site) to be confined,” Mr Eibenschutz said.
Alerts had been issued in six Mexican states and the capital when the cargo went missing, and also with customs staff to keep the truck from crossing the border, he said.
A firefighter stands next to the radiation head that was found in a nearby field.
The White House said there was no reason to believe that the stolen shipment posed a threat to the United States. President Barack Obama was briefed about the status of the shipment on Wednesday.
But townspeople complained they had not been given any information about what had been found in the nearby field.
“We just want to know,” said Maria del Socorro Rostro Salazar, a lawyer who has lived in the town for eight years. “There’s a kindergarten about 50 yards away (from the cordoned area) and they were operating normally yesterday. No one told them the container was nearby.”
The cargo truck hauling the cobalt-60 was stolen from a petrol station early on Monday in the neighbouring state of Hidalgo, about 24 miles from where the material was recovered.
The material had been removed from obsolete radiation therapy equipment at a hospital in the northern city of Tijuana and was being transported to nuclear waste centre in the state of Mexico, which borders Mexico City.
Mr Eibenschutz said there was nothing to indicate the thieves were after the cobalt or in any way intended for an act of terrorism. The thieves most likely wanted the white 2007 Volkswagen cargo vehicle with a moveable platform and crane, he said.
Authorities say a lorry marked Transportes Ortiz left Tijuana on November 28 and was heading to the storage facility when the driver stopped to rest at the filling station in Tepojaco.
The driver said he was sleeping in the vehicle when two armed men approached, made him get out, tied him up and left him nearby.
Mr Eibenschutz said the transport company did not follow proper procedures and should have had GPS and security with the lorry.
The company that owns the lorry could not immediately be located for comment, but Mr Eibenschutz said the firm hired to transport the material to central Mexico was Asesores en Radiaciones, a Mexico City-based company that says on its website that it has been providing “radiation safety services” since 1980.
He said the company faced sanctions from the country’s nuclear agency and possible prosecution.