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Short-lived radioactive scare in Mexico

Development: On 4 December the head of Mexico’s nuclear security commission (CNSNS), Mardonio Jiménez Rojas, announced the recovery of a medical device containing cobalt-60 radioactive material that was stolen earlier in the day.

Significance: Cobalt-60 is a low-intensity radioactive material used in radiation therapy and can be highly toxic. Jiménez acknowledged that the theft came as a result of negligence by the personnel in charge of transporting the material. The CNSNS was forced to declare an emergency in central Mexican states and although the authorities managed to quickly recover the stolen material, there will be plenty of questions about the incident, which was international news after the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations also issued an alert.

Key points:

  • The medical device was stolen from a radioactive waste management disposal truck that was moving it from the northern border city of Tijuana, Baja California, to a radioactive waste management centre (Cader) in the Estado de México. The drivers made an unscheduled stop at a petrol station in the municipality of Tepojaco, Hidalgo state, where the device was stolen. The authorities issued a public statement reporting the theft and warning that the device should not be opened, stressing that the radioactive risk would remain low as long as the device remained closed. The CNSNS declared a state of emergency in Hidalgo, the Estado de México, Quéretaro, Tlaxcala, Puebla, Veracruz and Mexico City.
  • Hours later the CNSNS reported that the device had been found in an unpopulated area of the municipality of Hueypoxtla, in the Estado de México. Jiménez said that the device had been opened at some point during the robbery; but added that since all the radioactive material had now been recovered, there is no longer any risk of anyone being affected by radioactive pollution. However, the CNSNS said that while the local population is safe, the thieves that had handled the cobalt-60 are at severe medical risk. The authorities have notified local hospitals to be alert to any emergency patients showing signs of radiation poisoning.
  • Commenting on the incident, Jiménez said that it reflected the carelessness and lack of training of the waste management staff, adding that the decision to stop at the petrol station was “evidently inadequate and inconvenient” and went against IAEA criteria. Jiiménez also said that the GPS locator on the truck was not working and the truck was not properly guarded.
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