NUCLEAR experts have begun the delicate task of recovering a stolen shipment of highly radioactive cobalt-60 abandoned in a Mexican field.
The material, which the International Atomic Energy Agency called “extremely dangerous”, was found removed from its protective container.
The pellets did not appear to have been damaged or broken up and there was no sign of contamination to the area, the agency said.
Juan Eibenschutz, director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards, said it could take at least two days to safely get the material into a secure container and transport it to a waste site.
“It’s a very delicate operation,” he said.
“What’s important is that the material has been located and the place is being watched to guarantee no-one gets close.”
The missing shipment of radioactive cobalt-60 was found on Wednesday near where the stolen truck transporting the material was abandoned in central Mexico state.
The atomic energy agency said it has an activity of 3,000 curies, 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”.
Hospitals were on alert for people with radiation exposure, though none had so far reported.
Mardonio Jimenez, a physicist for Mexico’s nuclear safety commission, said those who exposed themselves to the pellets could not contaminate others.
A family who found the empty container that had been used for the radioactive material were under medical observation, he said.
The cobalt-60 that was missing for nearly two days was left in a rural area about half a mile from Hueypoxtla, a farm town of about 4,000 people. Officials said it posed no threat to the residents and there was no evacuation, although a 500-yard cordon was set up around the site.
Mr Eibenschutz said alerts were issued in six Mexican states and the capital when the cargo went missing, and also with customs staff to keep the truck from crossing the border.
The White House said there was no reason to believe that the stolen shipment posed a threat to the United States. President Barack Obama was briefed about the status of the shipment on Wednesday.
But townspeople complained they had not been given any information about what had been found in the nearby field.
“We just want to know,” said Maria del Socorro Rostro Salazar, a lawyer who has lived in the town for eight years. “There’s a kindergarten about 50 yards away (from the cordoned area) and they were operating normally yesterday. No-one told them the container was nearby.”
The cargo truck hauling the cobalt-60 was stolen from a petrol station early on Monday.
The material had been removed from obsolete radiation therapy equipment at a hospital and was being transported to a nuclear waste centre in the state of Mexico.
Mr Eibenschutz said there was nothing to indicate the thieves were after the cobalt or that it was in any way intended for an act of terrorism. They most likely wanted the cargo vehicle with a moveable platform and crane, he said.
The driver said he was sleeping in the vehicle when two armed men approached, made him get out, tied him up and left him nearby.
Mr Eibenschutz said the transport company did not follow proper procedures and should have had GPS and security with the lorry. He said the company faced sanctions from the country’s nuclear agency and possible prosecution.