Mexico on Thursday searched for two or more thieves who could be ailing from exposure to a now-recovered supply of radioactive cobalt-60, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Authorities have suggested radiation would doom the thieves, who appeared to have unknowingly taken the material when they stole a truck en route from a Tijuana cancer-treatment center to a waste-disposal facility outside the nation's capital in central Mexico. The theft prompted an International Atomic Energy Agency alert over the missing substance, which had the potential of being used in a radiological "dirty bomb."
The material turned up on Wednesday in an unshielded 4-inch-long by 1.2-inch-wide copper container, in an open field in the town of Hueypoxtla, the Associated Press reported. Medical personnel were monitoring a five-person family that notified police after finding the abandoned item and removing it from its casing, the Times reported.
"They said they found the material in a vacant lot and took it home, thinking it was scrap metal that they could sell," local civil-protection chief Julio Cesar Abreu said. "They are undergoing medical examinations, and some have been allowed to go home."
Law enforcement and armed forces personnel restricted access for more than a quarter-mile around where the cobalt originally turned up, AP reported. Authorities said the material posed no risk to Hueypoxtla's roughly 4,000 residents, but a number of locals complained that they were kept in the dark about the unfolding incident.
"We just want to know," said Maria del Socorro Rostro Salazar, an attorney living in the area. "There's a kindergarten about 50 meters (yards) away (from the cordoned area) and they were operating normally yesterday. No one told them the container was nearby."
Authorities on Thursday were working to pack the cobalt-60 pellets -- which remained undamaged -- into shielded casing and move the material to a waste site, AP reported. The process could take two days or longer, according to Juan Eibenschutz, head of Mexico's National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards.
This article was published in Global Security Newswire, which is produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.