Mexico radioactive material found, thieves' lives 'in danger'

The lorry was stolen on Monday by armed men at a petrol station

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Dangerous radioactive medical material taken when a lorry was stolen in Mexico has been found, local officials say.

The material - cobalt-60 - was removed from a protective casing and then abandoned nearby.

The thieves may have been exposed to life-threatening radiation levels, but there is no health risk for local residents, the officials say.

The material and the lorry were found close to where they had been stolen near Mexico City on Monday.

'Extremely dangerous'

Analysis

It always seemed unlikely that this was anything as sinister as a plot involving Mexican drug cartels trying to lay their hands on dangerous radioactive material.

Rather it looked like a case of opportunistic theft gone wrong.

With the discovery of the lorry barely 2km from where it was stolen, it seems clear that this was a bungled robbery.

The authorities say the thieves appeared to have opened the box out of "curiosity" and in the process may well have been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

Although they managed to remove cobalt-60 from its protective container, nuclear security officials assured Mexicans that the authorities had the situation under control and that it posed no threat to the local population or the environment.

The radioactive material was discovered near the town of Hueypoxtla, officials from Mexico's National Nuclear Security Commission (NNSC) said. It was barely 2km (1.4 miles) from where the lorry had been stolen.

NNSC official Mardonio Jimenez said the radioactive source had been "removed from its container and left between 500 and 700m" from the vehicle.

But he warned that whoever had opened it could die "because the source's intensity is very high".

"They will eventually have to go to a hospital, and we'll be waiting for them," Mr Jimenez said.

He stressed that the radioactive material was now in the hands of the authorities.

The military has now sealed off the area.

The thieves struck as the driver of the Volkswagen lorry made an overnight rest stop at a petrol station in the town of Tepojaco. The driver was forced out of the vehicle at gunpoint and tied up.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) described the material as "extremely dangerous" and there was some speculation that it could have been used to build a "dirty bomb".

However, the authorities believe that this was an opportunistic theft which went badly wrong.

"The vehicles are expensive because of the mechanisms to load and unload heavy material. That type of theft is very common in that area. That's why we feel the people who did this have no idea what they stole," Mr Jimenez said.

Cobalt-60 is used in cancer treatment and was being transported from a hospital in the northern city of Tijuana to a disposal centre near the capital.

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