Mexican Authorities Recover Stolen Radioactive Material

A Mexican truck carrying radioactive material was hijacked and couldn't be located for two days. The truck was found empty on Wednesday and later the radioactive material was located separately. It's unclear if the thieves knew what they were stealing.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Mexican authorities say they have recovered dangerous radioactive material that was stolen during a highway robbery earlier this week. Gunmen stole a truck transporting Cobalt-60 to a waste storage facility. The robbers probably did not know what they had, but it was extremely dangerous and at the least probably made the missing thieves very sick. NPR's Carrie Kahn joins us now from Mexico City to talk about this story. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Where did the material come from?

KAHN: Actually, it came from a hospital up in the north in the border city of Tijuana and it was being used for radiotherapy. Actually, it's part of an obsolete therapy and it has been taken out of hospitals all over Mexico. And so they were transporting it to this waste storage facility in the center of Mexico. So it was being transported quite a long distance.

INSKEEP: And why did it take two days or so for authorities to realize this stuff was missing and to track it down?

KAHN: That's a great question. What happened was the driver of the truck that was bringing it to the storage facility early in the morning on Monday pulled over to get some sleep. He was very tired. He stopped in an area that had had a rash of highway robberies, which didn't sound like a very smart move to make.

But he said early in the morning he was awoke by two armed gunmen who pulled him out, bound and gagged him, dropped him off in a vacant lot and took the truck from him. He made his way back to a gas station and called police, but it took 12 hours. That's what reportedly happened before the police reported this, spread out the news widely.

An alert was put out to six states and the sprawling capital here to look for this truck and the material. But there was a long delay before that alert was put out. So it did take two and a half days before they actually found the material.

INSKEEP: And so how did they finally find it?

KAHN: They did a large dragnet over this wide area and it was found not far from where the truck was stolen. They found the container, the protective box where the material, the Cobalt-60, was encased in. The robbers had opened it and then about a half a mile away they found the substance and it had spread over an area.

Luckily, the authorities say it was in an area - a remote rural area with a very small population. They did cordon off the area and trying to make sure that they found all of the material. And they said that there is no danger to the population there.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking about the evidence you just described there, Carrie. This box-like object, which is actually a really intense container, was opened, you're saying, and the material was found some distance away, suggesting the people who took it removed this extremely hazardous material and moved with it for some distance, maybe before realizing what they had?

KAHN: I spoke to a physicist at the Nuclear Safety Commission. He said that's what appears to have happened. It's pretty obvious that these robbers did not know what they had in their hands. And he says whoever they are, they're probably feeling very sick, and depending upon the amount of time that they had with the material, they are probably close to death. It would take one to three days after such exposure to probably die.

INSKEEP: Now, when these news reports first spread, the immediate question is whether radioactive material of this sort could be used to make some kind of weapon. What were the odds of that?

KAHN: Some of the nuclear experts that have been talked to about this say that Cobalt-60 is a very difficult material to be used in such an operation. It would be hard to disperse it over a wide area. But also what the commission physicist that I spoke to said is that you would have to have a high level of expertise to know how to handle the material, and it's obvious that these people didn't.

But the security situation in Mexico right now is not very good, as you know. And that was what sowed a lot of this concern. There are a lot of organized crime groups and drug traffickers. The fear was that if this fell into the hands of any of these groups, there's many things that they could've done. They could've sold it to somebody else who had some sort of expertise.

This area where the material was found is in a high crime area about 25 miles outside of the capital. So obviously the driver did not take the proper safety precautions. And there was no GPS on the truck. There was no security with them. So there's a lot of concern about the way this material is being transported around Mexico.

INSKEEP: So this kind of material could not have easily been made into a bomb and probably not at all by the people who actually took it, but it raises questions about other radioactive shipments that might be sent at some other time.

KAHN: Clearly. Officials say that there have been other thefts of radioactive material. Nothing as dangerous as this Cobalt-60 but less lethal. But that it is a problem in Mexico and more safety precautions need to be taken.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks very much.

KAHN: Oh, thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn. She's in Mexico City.

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