The truck was carrying a metal container of cobalt-60 headed to a nuclear waste facility in the state of Mexico, said Juan Eibenschutz, director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards. Though the container is heavily sealed in lead, designed to be difficult to break and to survive accidents intact, he said it contains an amount of radioactive material that could do serious damage if opened.
Direct exposure would result in death within a few minutes, he added.
“This is a radioactive source that is very strong,” Eibenschutz told The Associated Press on Wednesday, adding that it can be almost immediately fatal, depending on proximity. “The intensity is very big if it is broken.”
Eibenschutz didn’t know the exact weight, but that it was the largest amount stolen in recent memory, and the intensity of the material caused the alert. Local, state and federal authorities, including the military, are searching for the truck.
The material was used for obsolete radiation therapy equipment that is being replaced throughout Mexico’s public health system. Eibenschutz said there is nothing so far to indicate that the theft of the material was intentional or in any way intended for an act of terrorism.
All of the U.S. ports of entry have radiation detectors in place, and trucks crossing the border are routinely screened for radiation.
There are an average of a half-dozen reported thefts of radioactive material in Mexico each year, Eibenschutz said, and none have proven to be intentional, meaning the thieves were not after the material. He said in all cases so far, they were after the containers or vehicles.