Friday, December 06, 2013

Thieves of cobalt-60 in Mexico likely to die

Thanks for all the wishes, everyone! Yes, a celebration is a part of it but yes, I do think it's a day just like any other day – perhaps a better one than the average. ;-)
Today, 1/3 of the TRF visitors are Hungarians who came from this Hungarian server,, to my 2011 page about the radioactive source found in Prague's playground which was medically related.

The reason for the new Hungarian report – and many others in the whole world (e.g. Time) – is that some thieves stole a truck in Mexico. Stealing is wrong and these thieves are likely to learn it in the hard way because they're likely to perish because the truck had lots (40 grams) of cobalt-60 in it.

Cobalt-60 is artificially produced from the only stable isotope of this \(Z=27\) element in Nature, cobalt-59 (almost 100% of the naturally occurring cobalt), by neutron activation (absorption of a neutron combined with an excitation of the nucleus). Its half-life is 5.2714 years which is very, very fast (but still long enough to "wait" for your death). The isotope beta-decays to nickel-60 which has \(Z=28\).

It is being used to trace cobalt in chemical reactions; sterilize medical equipment; medical radiotherapy, and so on.

Some of the cobalt-60 that gets into your body is excreted by excrements. Some of it gets to tissues – especially liver, kidneys, and bones – where the radiation eventually causes cancer unless it mostly gets out of your body in time (via urine).

The Czech nuclear watchdog agency has a coherent story with some details.

On December 2nd, the International Atomic Energy Agency was informed by Mexican nuclear watchdogs that a truck (or just its cargo? It doesn't really matter) was stolen when it was bringing the nuclear stuff used for radiotherapy from a hospital in Tijuana (pretty much at the U.S. border, near San Diego) to a nuclear dumping ground in Maquixco (central or Southern Mexico). The stuff was used for radiotherapy and its activity was 111 TBq (3 000 Ci: 100 trillion decays per second just from 40 grams of the substance that was there). Police and other enforcement forces immediately began to look for the thieves to save them; the public was informed about the serious incident.

Two days later, on December 4th, in the afternoon local time, the radioactive source was found extracted from the shielding near the Hueypoxtla town (central or Southern Mexico). A 500-meter no-entry zone was enforced around the source and a safe liquidation is being prepared. Everyone who could have interacted with the source was urged to visit a physician.

Several minutes in the vicinity of such an unshielded source may be enough for death. You could conjecture that the thieves' bodies shouldn't be further than a mile but that's wrong because the death may still arrive after a delay.

Radiotherapy based on cobalt-60 is used all over the world. The EU and Czechia define strict conditions how to deal with this lethal stuff. In Mexico, they're probably less strict. The material wasn't guided by anyone when the truck stopped at a gas station. The driver actually didn't need to refuel; he just wanted to sleep. But he was assaulted by a pair of unlucky thieves.

Of course, in principle, it's conceivable that the thieves knew very well what they were dealing with and how to deal with that. But I find this James Bond scenario a bit unlikely. It seems more likely to me (especially in Mexico) that they didn't know what gift they conquered until they were feeling sick – and then they may have tried to run away but it's probably too late. The expected lifetime in such a situation is just "at most a few days". If they were manipulating with the stuff with their hands, amputation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for survival.

Cobalt-60 irradiation unit used in Czechia.

The security breach is a serious matter – especially because in many poorer countries, they may be as careless as those in Mexico if not more so – because the effects summarized above should assure you that stolen cobalt-60 is an "excellent" material to produce dirty bombs, to kill some people instantly, or to make a place unlivable for generations.

This particular material was probably collected in its entirety but one should be aware of this time bomb.


  1. Thanks for increasing the number of such TRF articles Lumo :-)

    I like the explanation of where the Higgs discovered at the LHC could come from, very cute !

    Concerning the second paper, I somehow miss an underlying physics motivation for the specific groups, number of dimensions, etc she uses (not sure if it is in the paper, I just read the TRF article ;-P) ...?


  2. Thanks for your interest, Dilaton. I miss the motivation, too. Well, using some ill-defined rules, fewer dimensions is just not enough for her. But don't expect any string-theory-like robust calculation of the dimension.

  3. SteveBrooklineMADec 6, 2013, 4:23:00 PM

    I wonder what kind of warning labels were on the shipment. It's sad that anyone would be foolish enough to open a lead box with Radiation Warning stickers all over it. This has happened before by the way. I remember many years ago (in Central America?) some children discovered a discarded medical device. Curious people broke it open and radiated themselves. Sad.

  4. Imagine the thieves' disappointment after working through the armor to find a teaspoon of dull metal. They have about a week to live. Think of it as evolution in action.

    Was the shielding depleted uranium, d = 19.1 g/cm^3, (1.68 times denser than lead)? If so, they ignored some good stuff. After a Warthog busts a Muslim tank with DU ammo, respirable aerosolized oxide therefrom is a disseminated gift that keeps on giving. Exposure of our own lower echelon troops is an acceptable outcome. It's all in the parsing.

  5. Maybe these people thought it was a cover up for meth trafficking (ok I'm watching too much of the Breaking Bad series ;-) but maybe also did they?)

  6. "The EU and Czechia define strict conditions how to deal with this lethal stuff. In Mexico, they're probably less strict."

    "But I find this James Bond scenario a bit unlikely. It seems more likely to me (especially in Mexico) that they didn't know what gift they conquered until they were feeling sick"

    Enough with the xenophobia, no?

  7. Sorry, what's "xenophobic" about the fact that Mexico belongs to the third world?

  8. Exactly, I was thinking of the same. It must have had the radiation symbol

    everywhere, right? Or not?

  9. In that case, too bad if someone isn't ready for the possibility that the things are what they seem to be.

    On the other hand, the symbol as a coverup is a good idea. Shouldn't one glue the radiation logo on her cars and apartments so that they are not robbed?

  10. 1963 Alfred Hitchcock Hour "The Dividing Wall" has this premise as it's plot.

  11. Good idea! Hey Lubos do you have Breaking Bad in Czech Rep ? It's the best series ever :-)

  12. LOL, too bad I missed it. It was first aired by Nova Cinema 2 years ago

    Here we call it "Perníkový táta" - "perník dad" where "perník" is both "gingerbread" and slang for pervitin or crystal meth.

  13. Protagonists in the serie took Jewish names so they are taken more seriously in their business. Lol. Check this one he is a McGill turned Goodman, lawyer :-D

  14. Someone sold a TV series on cooking crystal meth in your garage to the Czech?

    Wow. That's... I dunno... like teaching eskimos to catch fish, isn't it? Carrying coals to Newcastle... giving a football lesson to Cristiano Ronaldo... I'm running out of analogies :)

  15. LOL, we may be better in that but that makes the sitcom more attractive.

    I think that all TV shows of this or higher importance have been bought, dubbed, and aired in Czechia.

  16. There is an update on this. No obvious warning signs on the canister


  18. Actually the stealers have now been located, and only one was sick enough to be vomiting :

    I would be worried about that one, he has a significant risk of much more serious symptoms later on. But the whole conclusion is that even if the material is very radioactive, it's hard for it to be radioactive enough to kill you quickly.

  19. If these people manipulated with the stuff and they're just fine, it's remarkable and something that everyone interested in safety should notice!

    It's an experiment one can't perform too often.

  20. They could show relatively little effect now, but be at risk of dying from leukemia in a few years.

    Most people underestimate the exact number of such accidents that have occurred. The Internet however allows now to locate some quite good lists :