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Authorities recover radioactive medical material stolen in Mexico

Mexican police have recovered stolen radioactive medical material near where the truck that was transporting it was abandoned. Officials say anyone who touched it could be in danger of dying.

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Stolen radioactive cargo found

The container carrying the highly radioactive cobalt-60 had been opened when it was found, authorities said Wednesday. Military and police forces cordoned off the area about near the agricultural town of Hueypoxtla, north of Mexico City. Juan Eibenschutz, director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards (CNSNS), said the material posed no threat or need for an evacuation.

"Fortunately there are no people where the source of radioactivity is," Eibenschutz said.

'Great risk' of death

CNSNS physicist Mardonio Jimenez said thieves had opened the steel-reinforced wood container carrying the cobalt-60 and spread the radioactive substance on the ground several hundred meters (yards) from the truck transporting it.

"The person or people who took this out are in very great risk of dying," said Jimenez, adding that the normal survival rate would be one to three days.

The white Volkswagen truck transporting the material was stolen at a service station in central Hidalgo state on Monday. It was traveling from a hospital in the northwestern border city of Tijuana to dispose of the material at a radioactive waste disposal facility in the central state of Mexico.

"Our suspicion is that they had no idea what they had stolen. This is an area where robberies are common," Fernando Hidalgo, a spokesman for the Hidalgo state prosecutor, said earlier.

'Dirty bomb' material

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned the material was "extremely dangerous" if removed from its protective container. Experts had said the cobalt-60 could be used to make a "dirty bomb."

Cobalt-60 is a radioactive isotope of the element cobalt. The gamma rays it emits can destroy tumors, but if not handled properly, contact with it or just being in its proximity can cause cancer.

An accident in Thailand involving cobalt in 2000 left three people dead. In 1987, four people in Brazil died when medical equipment being sold for scrap was opened.

dr/av (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)

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