Nuking The Thieves

This week, two carjackers in Mexico made off with a truck full of cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope with medical applications. But it seems they didn’t know what they were dealing with:

While Mexican officials initially feared that the material could have been stolen as part of a plot to build a dirty bomb, the material itself has since been recovered. What hasn’t been found are the two carjackers, but they won’t get far: authorities say the thieves will almost certainly [die] of exposure if they haven’t already … It wasn’t initially clear if the thieves knew what they were stealing. But when a small amount (a few dozen grams) of the cobalt-60 was found removed from its casing, authorities figured the duo had no idea what they had, as a thief deliberately targeting radioactive material probably wouldn’t have exposed himself to a deadly dose of radiation.

Julia Fisher details what that level of radiation exposure does to a human body:

Cobalt-60 is produced commercially for use in industrial plants and for cancer radiotherapy. Like any radioactive material, it can also cause cancer if you’re exposed to low amount over a long period of time. But how cobalt-60 will exact its punishment on the thieves is a different, gruesome matter. …

Thus, the thieves in Mexico are probably in great pain. They may have burns and blisters on their skin. They could have diarrhea, a headache, and a fever. They may be vomiting—perhaps even vomiting blood. Their stomachs and intestines could be bleeding. The radiation has probably depleted their supply of red and white blood cells. Lack of the former will reduce their bodies’ access to oxygen, making them tired; lack of the latter will lower their resistance to infections, making it easier for them to get even sicker. They may be suffering from seizures, or even in be in a coma by now.

Fisher talks to Mark Hibbs, who says the risk of criminals making a dirty bomb from such materials is lower than we think. He’s still plenty concerned, though:

The scenario Hibbs seems most worried about isn’t a TV-ready plot about a dirty bomb or other large-scale attack. It’s an accident borne of poor safety practices and too-scant public awareness of the dangers of nuclear materials.

It may not sound as scary as terrorism, but Hibbs warned that the real risk here may be when countries such as Mexico falter in safely and securely moving around nuclear materials in a way that risks exposing small numbers of innocent people. “The biggest threat is the environment where a source like this would get lost,” he said, comparing Mexico to Thailand, which experienced a similar incident in 2000.

“In Thailand, the perpetrators were the victims. Someone found a source [of radioactive material] in a scrap pile, gathered that what was inside the locked box must be valuable, and cut it open,” Hibbs recounted of the 2000 incident. “The cobalt was so hot that a couple of people got fatal doses after they handled the cobalt for a short period of time. Others had bad radiation burns. They had no idea that what was in that box could kill them.”