Radiation tests for theft suspects
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.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the six were arrested on 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 on Monday at gunpoint that was carrying the extremely dangerous material.
Hidalgo state health minister Pedro Luis Noble said 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", Mr Noble told Foro TV.
The cobalt-60 theft triggered alerts in six Mexican states and Mexico City, as well as international notifications to the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) 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 IAEA 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 probably did not know about the dangerous cargo. The government official would not give details or the location of Thursday's arrest nor names or ages of the suspects.
The truck was found abandoned on Wednesday about 40 kilometres (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 kilometre (half a 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 a nuclear waste facility in the state of Mexico, which borders Mexico City.
Authorities continued to work on Friday at the site in Mexico state where the material was found 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 on Friday to the hospital where the six were held.