MEXICO CITY (AP) - Mexico official: Stolen cobalt-60 found; says no risk so far to surrounding populationBy Pete Williams and Alexander Smith, NBC NewsA truck carrying "extremely dangerous" radioactive material was found Wednesday close to the place where it was stolen in Mexico, authorities said, but it's unclear whether its cargo was still on board.
The vehicle was transporting radiotherapy equipment containing the radioactive isotope cobalt-60 from a hospital to a waste storage center, the International Atomic Energy Agency said.
"At the time the truck was stolen, the source was properly shielded," the IAEA said in a statement. "However, the source could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the shielding, or if it was damaged."
Officials could only confirm that the truck had been found. It is unclear whether the cargo was still in the truck.
The vehicle is a 2.5-ton Volkswagen truck with an integrated crane, Mexico's National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards (CNSNS) said. The truck was stolen on Monday at a gas station in Tepojaco, near Mexico City.
Mexico's federal, state, and local authorities were involved in a widespread and coordinated hunt for the vehicle across several states, the CNSNS said.
U.S. officials say it's not at all clear why it had been stolen.
“It could be,” one federal official said, “that whoever stole the truck had no idea what was inside and was more interested in getting a truck.”
One law enforcement official says the radioactive material the truck was carrying is a thumb-sized amount of cobalt-60, used in medical treatments.
“It would be extremely dangerous to anyone who tried to grind it up for use in a dirty bomb,” the official said.
The main concern of authorities was that the material in the stolen truck is dangerous to handle. In addition, it could also be used to make a radioactive dirty bomb, as could all similar materials used in medicine and industry.
At the same time, U.S. officials say cobalt-60 is among the materials that would be hardest to disperse over a wide area, assuming such a device could be made.
U.S. officials had said there was no indication that the truck had been stolen for any criminal or terrorist purpose.
According to safety guidelines on the IAEA website, a "malevolent use of radioactive sources…could also cause significant social, psychological and economic impacts."
There also are many documented cases of people unwittingly stealing or acquiring radioactive material and then becoming ill or dying.
IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor told NBC News: "Such thefts are not uncommon, and the thieves do not necessarily know what they have in their possession in addition to the vehicle that may have been the original target.
"In some cases, for example, radioactive sources have ended up being sold as scrap, causing serious health consequences for people who unknowingly come into contact with it."