A truck transporting radiotherapy equipment containing the radioactive isotope colbalt-60 has been found after it was stolen in Mexico on Dec. 2. U.S. officials have not stated why it was stolen, and it was likely thieves opened the container not knowing what it was and burned themselves. This exposure was likely to prove fatal to the thieves. At the time the truck was stolen, the source was properly shielded. The main concern of authorities at the time was that the radioactive isotope colbalt-60 in the stolen truck is dangerous to handle. In addition, the material could have been used to make a radioactive dirty bomb. A dirty bomb contains radioactive material, but does not use that material to produce a nuclear explosion, as is the case with a nuclear weapon. As with any explosion, people in the immediate vicinity could be killed or injured by the blast itself. The dispersed radioactive material could lead to exposure of people in the vicinity.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has identified radioactive sources used in industrial radiography, radiotherapy, industrial irradiators and thermo-electric generators as those that are the most significant from a safety and security standpoint because they contain large amounts of radioactive material, such as cobalt-60, strontium-90, caesium-137, and iridium-192. IAEA has established an Illicit Trafficking Database. From 2003-2012, the database contained a total of 2,331 confirmed incidences of illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive material, with 615 incidents reporting theft or loss. Learn more about this incident.
NACCHO has resources to help local health departments prepare for a radiation emergency. For more information on radiation preparedness, visit NACCHO’s Radiation Preparedness site.