Mexico scrambles to find stolen radioactive material

2015-04-16 20:28

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Mexico City - Authorities appealed for help among Mexico's population on Thursday to locate stolen radioactive material, the latest theft of such dangerous substances in the country.

The interior ministry issued an alert in five southern and eastern states late Wednesday, two days after a toolbox-sized container carrying the Iridium-192 source was snatched from a truck in a residential parking lot in Cardenas, Tabasco state.

Luis Felipe Puente, the national civil protection coordinator, urged ordinary Mexicans to be on the lookout and notify the authorities right away if they find the material, which is used for industrial radiography to check welding seams.

He noted that in previous similar cases the thieves did not even know what kind of material they had taken. There have been three other cases since 2013 and the material was always recovered.

"Each time that one of these units have disappeared from the hands of companies in charge of them, we have recovered them with the help of the population," Puente told Milenio television.

He urged anybody who finds it to stay away and quickly call the authorities.

Puente posted a picture of the metallic 50-by-30 centimeter container on his Twitter page. The tri-foil radiation symbol is printed in red on a yellow plate with the warning "caution radioactive material."

The theft was reported by the company Garantia Radiografica e Ingenieria on Monday.

Safe in container

An official at Mexico's National Nuclear Security and Safety Commission told AFP that the container was among other things that were snatched from inside the truck, which was in a residential parking lot late at night.

The thieves left the vehicle and stole a second truck, said Christian Romero, the commission's deputy director for radiological emergencies.

"Thieves are not realizing what they're stealing," Romero said, referring to past similar cases.

He stressed that special tools are needed to open the box.

"As long as it remains inside the container, there is no risk at all to anybody," Romero said, adding that the source is two centimetres long and half a centimetre wide.

Asked why there is no requirement for private or government security to accompany such material, Romero said it is not considered dangerous enough as long as it is inside its container.

Romero added that it would be too expensive for companies to provide security for such commonly used material across the country.

Security forces do accompany more dangerous radioactive substances when they need to be transported, he said.

Police and troops were put on alert in the states of Tabasco, Campeche, Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz.

Authorities said the manmade radioactive element can cause burns, radiation sickness and permanent injuries if somebody comes in contact with it for minutes or hours. It is fatal if exposure lasts hours or days.

Past thefts

In December 2013, thieves took a truck containing a cancer-treating medical device with highly radioactive cobalt-60 near Mexico City.

Authorities arrested and hospitalized five suspects in that case after recovering the potentially lethal material, which the thieves intended to sell as scrap metal. They all survived.

That theft prompted the International Atomic Energy Agency to issue an alert for "extremely dangerous" material while US officials kept tabs on the situation.

More recently, in February, authorities recovered in central Mexico three stolen trucks transporting radioactive material for industrial use.

A similar incident took place in July 2014, also without causing harm to the population.

Read more on:    mexico  |  nuclear

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