Half-Life of Crime: Mexico's Recent Radioactive Rip Off

January 4, 2014- In an article titled "Lessons from a Mexican theft," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) website thebulletin.org is reporting on the epilogue of the infamous December 2, 2013 theft of a truck near Mexico City that just happened to be carrying cobalt 60, a highly dangerous radioactive source.  

The improbable cargo turned out to be a teletherapy device used in cancer treatment. It was taken near a disposal site destination and initial reports raised concerns about the dangers posed if the radioactive element were removed from its shielding — and also the possibility that the theft was the first step in assembling a "dirty bomb" targeted at the United States.
Here are many of the highlights in the BAS report:
• Mexico quickly informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the device was found not far from the site of the theft. Although the source capsule had been removed from its shielding, no contamination occurred because the capsule itself was not opened. An official with the Mexican National Commission for Nuclear Safety and Safeguards said there was "nothing to indicate the theft of the cobalt was intentional or in any way intended for an act of terrorism."

• The IAEA indicated the strength of the cobalt 60 was 3,000 curies, establishing itself as an IAEA Category 1 source, the most dangerous of the organization's radioactivity classes. Given that the source capsule was found .6 miles from the truck and the teletherapy unit, the person or persons who removed the capsule probably received fatal doses of radiation.

• The IAEA's Incident and Trafficking Database indicates that approximately 120 participating states reported about 30 total incidents of theft per year from 2008 to 2012. In its report, the BAS writes, "This figure should be seen as a baseline number, since reports are voluntary and countries may not disclose all thefts." Mexico has 20 to 25 percent of all such incidents worldwide.

• Fortunately, thefts involving Category 1 sources are rare, probably because they are usually larger, and since they require heavy shielding, remain in fixed locations for most of their useful lives. They are usually "only being transported from the manufacturer to the point of use and then again for disposal or recycling."

• BAS says other questions arise: "Did the authorities or law enforcement personnel do anything wrong in the Mexican incident? Why wasn’t there security? Could it happen again?"

• Mexican officials found irregularities in observing the law in this particular delivery to the disposal site:
- No GPS device in the truck.

- Not enough security involved.

- The driver showed he "lacked common sense" by stopping to sleep.
• Here in the U.S. the Nuclear Regulatory Commission provides guidance for the transportation of Category 1 and 2 radioactive materials, which include the following:
- Enhanced communications.

- Establish a constant surveillance umbrella.

- Include lead-time, notifications, adherence to the planned route and liaisons with law enforcement along the way.

• The BAS article points out that the use of accelerators, rather than radioactive sources for medical treatments, produce radiation when they are on, but contain nothing radioactive and therefore pose little risk of misuse. They urge the international community to seek to increase such substituted technologies.

• Because accidents often escape regulatory control, countries need to implement better disposal rules for radioactive materials to prevent radiological sources from being dangerously mixed in with scrap metal. "One useful new rule would be to require buyers of radioactive material to set aside money for disposal at the time of purchase," writes the BAS.

• The BAS reports that currently, when strong radioactive sources are lost or stolen, countries often provide information to the IAEA and other governments, but don’t share it publicly. "There is simply no international requirement that countries report like Mexico did," they write.

• The BAS urges the creation of a new international requirement for reporting hazardous radioactive source escapes, as Mexico has done, or amending the current Convention on Early Notification to include incidents like this one.

Read the full Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists post here

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