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Mexico: Another radioactive material theft

Development: On 11 June, Mexico’s interior minister, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, confirmed the theft of radioactive material from a lab in the Estado de México by an unidentified group of armed men.

Significance: This is the second time that radioactive material has been stolen by criminal groups operating in the Estado de México in less than a year. Mexican authorities are still unsure why criminal groups are interested in obtaining the material, but there are serious concerns about the potential threat this represents to national security.

  • The theft was first reported to the Estado de México authorities on 10 June, when the managers of the national construction lab located near the municipality of Tultitlán notified authorities that armed men had entered the lab and stolen a soil compaction meter containing the radioactive isotopes caesium-137 and americium-beryllium. The incident was only verified by the state authorities yesterday, upon which they issued a radioactive contamination alert warning covering 125 nearby municipalities, and advising the local population not to handle the material if found. In the first such incident last year, the stolen medical device, containing cobalt-60 radioactive material, was found abandoned hours later.
  • After the initial alert, the interior ministry’s national civil protection directorate issued another one, this time covering the whole of the Estado de México, including the capital Mexico City; plus the states of Morelos, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Guerrero, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Querétaro, Hidalgo, Oaxaca and Veracruz. The ministry said that the stolen radioactive material did not pose a serious health risk to the general population, but that if not kept secure and handled properly it could cause harm to anyone handling it or in contact with it for long periods of time.
  • At a press conference, Osorio Chong confirmed that the federal authorities were investigating the incident and working to recover the stolen material. “We have received a formal complaint about the theft and we are applying the protocols for these cases, which has produced good results in the past. It is material that must be handled carefully and it is important that we recover it quickly”, the minister stressed.

Looking Ahead: Unlike the highly toxic cobalt-60 stolen last year, caesium-137 and americium-beryllium are considered less toxic. While Cobalt-60 is mostly is used in radiation therapy, americium-beryllium can be used as a neutron source for nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons.

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