A lorry that was stolen while transporting a deadly cargo of highly-radioactive cobalt-60 has been found empty in Mexico.
The lorry was found in a car park near the small farming town Hueypoxtia - close to where it was hijacked while the toxic material was being transferred to a hospital to be used in cancer treatments.
The discovery has prompted fears that the missing haul could be used by terrorists to create a “dirty bomb”, with the cobalt-60’s radiation levels high enough to cause mass panic and some loss of life if detonated in a major city.
Investigators said that they believe the identity of the thieves will emerge over the coming days, but revealed they are not expecting it to come as a result of a police investigation.
Instead, the level of radiation the thieves would have been exposed to while handling the cobalt-60 would have been so intense that they may have only days to live – and it could be just hours before they are forced to seek hospital treatment. In fact, according to Juan Eibenschutz, director of the Mexican Nuclear Agency, direct exposure to cobalt-60 could result in death within a few minutes.
In an interview with Associated Press, Eibenschutz said local hospitals have been asked to report anyone treated for exposure.
Countering concerns that the 4,000 people living in the farming village close to the abandoned lorry could be in danger, Eibenschutz added that the material poses little to no threat to human life if kept at a distance of at least 500 yards.
He went on to say: “Fortunately there are no people where the source of radioactivity is”.
Around 40 grams of cobalt-60 were found about half a mile from the abandoned lorry. It has not yet been revealed how much of the radioactive material remains missing.
Investigators believe that, rather than international terrorists or members of one of Mexico’s many drug cartels, the thieves may have been opportunists with no idea what they were getting into when they approached the sleeping driver with a gun and ordered him to leave the vehicle.
As the lorry – which was parked in a petrol station at the time - was equipped with a moveable platform and crane, officers believe the thieves were more interested in the vehicle itself and almost certainly only opened the cargo out of curiosity.
There are roughly six thefts of radioactive material every year in Mexico but as yet none are thought to have deliberately targeted the cargo. It is believed that the unintentional hauls are usually sold as scrap, potentially causing harm to dozens of people as the material is passed on.