Stolen isotope in Mexico enough for ‘dirty bomb’: experts

By on Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Mexico’s nuclear commission said Wednesday the radioactive material inside a stolen truck weighed 60 grams, a quantity experts said is enough to make a “dirty bomb.”

Jaime Aguirre Gomez, radiological security director at the National Commission for Nuclear Safety and Safeguards, told AFP the cobalt-60 in the medical teletherapy device has a radioactivity level of “almost 3,000 Curies.”

However, “as long as it remains in its container, there is no reason to be alarmed,” Aguirre Gomez said.

The truck was stolen by two gunmen on Monday at a service station in the central state of Hidalgo, an hour’s drive north of Mexico City, authorities said citing the driver’s account. They are searching in six states and in Mexico City to track it down.

The material came from a hospital in the northwestern city of Tijuana and was on its way to a radioactive waste disposal facility in the central state of Mexico.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that the material would be “extremely dangerous” if removed from its shielding.

In an incident in Thailand in 2000, cobalt-60 with 425 Curies was sufficient to make 10 people very ill, three of whom died, according to the IAEA.

Nuclear experts told AFP that the quantity lost in Mexico was enough to make a dirty bomb — a device whereby conventional explosives disperse radioactive materials. Cobalt-60 is particularly well suited.

“I think that you can build some sort of dirty bomb. The conventional explosive can produce a cloud and carry this material if it disperses,” said Alfredo Sandoval, physics department director at the Iberoamericana University of Mexico.

The quantity in this case, however, is too small to do major damage, he said.

“It’s sufficient, but the ultimate level of damage and contamination hinges on many factors,” said Michelle Cann, analyst at the Partnership for Global Security.

Although the damage and loss of life caused by such a bomb — also known as a “radiological dispersal device” or RDD — would be a fraction of that unleashed by an atom bomb, it could still cause mass panic.

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