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6 Radiactive Material Thieves are Held in Hospital

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December 6, 2013

Here is the latest “story” from Mexico.  Remembering first reports of empty truck, later “tampered truck but material inside”, then “found the material in an isolated farm”, today reporting finding  the material in back of a house.  Pick your story.  Additionally, report today is that they have arrested the six men and only one shows a few signs of radiation but “no testing results as of yet” .  The photos today sure do not appear to be the same location as yesterday, but here is the story du jour….
Six people have been arrested and are being tested for radiation exposure. The six are suspects in the theft of a cargo truck carrying radioactive cobalt-60.
MEXICO CITY — Six people being tested for possible radiation exposure in a hospital in central Mexico are suspects in the theft of highly radioactive cobalt-60, a government official said Friday.
The official said the six were arrested Thursday and taken to the general hospital in Pachuca for observation and testing for radiation exposure. Once they are cleared, they will be turned over to federal authorities in connection with the case of a cargo truck stolen Monday at gunpoint that was carrying the extremely dangerous material.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. He did not specify how the six were allegedly involved in the theft.
Hidalgo state Health Minister Pedro Luis Noble said Friday that the six suffered from skin irritations and dizziness, but that none are in grave condition and may be released soon. Only one was vomiting, a sign of radiation poisoning.
But based on the tests, “none are showing immediate signs of radiation poisoning,” Noble told Foro TV.
The cobalt-60 theft triggered alerts in six Mexican states and Mexico City, as well as international notifications to the U.S. and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. It raised concerns that the material could have been stolen to make a dirty bomb, a conventional explosive that disseminates radioactive material.
The atomic energy agency said the cobalt has an activity of 3,000 curies, or Category 1, meaning “it would probably be fatal to be close to this amount of unshielded radioactive material for a period in the range of a few minutes to an hour.”
But Mexican officials said that the thieves seemed to have targeted the cargo truck with moveable platform and crane, and likely didn’t know about the dangerous cargo. The government official would not give details or location of Thursday’s arrest nor names or ages of the suspects.
The six were arrested by Hidalgo state police, said state attorney general’s spokesman Fernando Hidalgo.
The driver of the truck, who had stopped to rest at a gas station early Monday when the theft occurred, said two armed men made him get out, tied his hands and feet and left him in a vacant lot.
Hidalgo said he didn’t know how or if the others were involved.
The truck was found abandoned Wednesday about 40 kilometers (24 miles) from where it was stolen, and the container for the radioactive material was found opened. The cobalt-60 pellets were left about a kilometer (half mile) from the truck in an empty rural field, where authorities said they were a risk only to anyone who had handled them and not to anyone in Hueypoxtla, the closest town of about 4,000 people. There was no evacuation.
The material was from obsolete radiation therapy equipment at a hospital in the northern city of Tijuana and was being transported to nuclear waste facility in the state of Mexico, which borders Mexico City.
Authorities maintained a 500-meter (yard) cordon around the site where the cobalt-60 still remains in the state of Mexico and continued to work Friday to extract it safely, said Juan Eibenschutz, director general of Mexico’s National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards.
“It’s quite an operation and it is in the process of being planned,” he said. “It’s highly radioactive, so you cannot just go over and pick it up. It’s going to take a while to pick it up.”
Federal police blocked access Friday to hospital where the six were held. (AP)

CNN’s account:

Six people exposed to radioactive material stashed inside a stolen  truck were being treated at a Mexico hospital on Friday, a day after  authorities said they’d recovered all of the potentially deadly  substance.
The five adults and one  16-year-old had apparently come into contact with cobalt-60 about 12  hours after the truck containing it and medical equipment was stolen  Monday inTepojaco, said Hidalgo state health official Jose Antonio  Copca, as reported by state-run Notimex.
A source in the Hidalgo  state government confirmed to CNN that six had been hospitalized for  presumed contact with cobalt-60, adding that they lived near where the  dangerous material was found.
All six were in stable condition at Pachuca General Hospital, according to Copca.
While the treatment for  possible radiation poisoning is considerable, given how it can damage  organs and cells, the state health official insisted that other patients at the hospital are not in danger.
News of their hospitalizations first surfaced on Twitter.
It comes after Mexican  authorities announced they’d recovered all the radioactive material,  though it wasn’t clear whether they’d also found those who stole it.
The missing vehicle,  along with most of the missing radioactive element used for medical  purposes, was located in a remote area about 40 kilometers (25 miles)  from where it was taken. All of the radioactive material had been  accounted for in that same area early Thursday evening.
Mexican authorities told  the International Atomic Energy Agency that the truck, which was  transporting the material from a hospital in Tijuana to a radioactive  waste storage center, was stolen Monday. Tepojaco is located some 55  kilometers north of Mexico City and 48 kilometers from Pachuca.
The container holding  the cobalt-60 was found about a kilometer (half a mile) from the truck  and had been opened, said Juan Eibenschutz Hartman, head of Mexico’s  National Commission for Nuclear Security and Safeguards.
Where are the thieves?
Authorities — who have  said they expect that the thieves will turn up to get medical treatment  for possible radiation exposure — have not announced explicitly that  anyone has been caught.
But the Notimex article  detailing the hospitalizations did state that a 25-year-old man and a  16-year-old man are in federal police custody. The report did not say  why they’d been detained, only that the Interior Ministry will soon have more details.
Nor was there an  indication whether the two were among those hospitalized in Pachuca, the capital of Hidalgo state. The Hidalgo government source declined to say whether any of those being treated in his state’s capital are suspects  in the criminal investigation.
Authorities are guarding the area and have set up a 500-meter (550-yard) perimeter around it  near the city of Hueypoxtla, Eibenschutz said. They are evaluating  whether any residents were exposed, but none has tested positive for  radiation, according to the civil protection office.
Cleaning up the area  could take weeks, he said, because they don’t have robotic equipment  they would need to quickly collect the dangerous cobalt. They’re coming  up with a plan and considering asking for help from the International  Atomic Energy Agency, the United States or Canada.
An early theory is that the thieves were unaware of what exactly they had taken.
“At the time the truck  was stolen, the source was properly shielded,” the IAEA said. “However,  the source could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the  shielding, or if it was damaged.”
But Eibenschutz said the truck wasn’t properly set up to transport the radioactive material,  since it didn’t have a GPS for tracking or other necessary equipment.
Uses for cobalt-60
Cobalt-60 is used in  radiotherapy and in industrial tools such as leveling devices and  thickness gauges. Large sources of cobalt-60 are used to sterilize  certain foods, as the gamma rays kill bacteria but don’t damage the  product, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
If released into the environment, the radioactive material can harm people.
And experts consider cobalt-60 one of the “candidates” for making dirty bombs.
Bombs made with  cobalt-60 “pose a threat mainly because even a fraction of a gram emits a huge number of high-energy gamma rays; such material is harmful whether outside or inside the body,” according to a 2011 report by the  Congressional Research Service.
In a speech last year,  the IAEA director warned that such a dirty bomb “detonated in a major  city could cause mass panic, as well as serious economic and  environmental consequences.”
Preliminary information  suggests that the thieves did not know what the truck’s cargo was when  they stole it, said Jaime Aguirre Gomez, deputy director of radiological security at the National Commission for Nuclear Security and  Safeguards.
The shielding that  protects the cobalt-60 is designed so that the radioactive source is  difficult to extract, Aguirre said. The casing is designed not to be  opened or perforated easily.
The theft
The truck and its cargo  went missing early Monday after the driver of the white 2007 Volkswagen  truck and an assistant had stopped to rest at a gas station, local  prosecutor Marcos Morales said.
About 1 a.m. Monday, a  man armed with a handgun knocked on the passenger window. When the  passenger rolled down his window, the gunman demanded the keys to the  vehicle, Morales said.
Both the driver and his  assistant were taken to an empty lot where they were bound and told not  to move. They heard one of the assailants use a walkie-talkie type  device or phone to tell someone, “It’s done,” Morales said.
Mexico alerted the IAEA to the theft, following international protocol, Aguirre said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is assisting with the investigation into the stolen truck, Mexican authorities said.
The U.S. government has  sensors at border crossings and sea ports to prevent radioactive  materials from entering the country. This includes large stationary  sensors designed to scan vehicles going through land border crossings as well as pager-size devices carried by agents.
Some of this equipment  is sensitive enough that it has been set off by people who had recently  undergone radiation therapy, according to a U.S. law-enforcement source.
According to the  Congressional Research Service report, in Thailand in 2000, a disused  cobalt-60 source was stored outdoors and bought by two scrap collectors, who took it to a junkyard where it was cut open.
Some workers suffered  burn-like injuries, and eventually three people died and seven others  suffered radiation injuries, the report says. Nearly 2,000 others who  lived nearby were exposed to radiation.

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Spreading the word about the dangers of methamphetamine.

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