HUEYPOXTLA, Mexico — Mexico’s energy authorities say specialists finally have recovered a capsule of cobalt-60 from a cornfield near the Mexican capital, presumably ending a nine-day saga that began when thieves hijacked a truck carrying the highly radioactive metal.
“The source has been recovered and stored … in a safe place,” the Energy Department said in a statement late Tuesday night.
The cobalt-60 theft, in the early hours of Dec. 2, sent alarmed officials scrambling from Mexico City to Washington to Vienna.
Some warned that the dangerous material can be used by a terrorist to make so-called dirty bombs that spread radiation by detonating conventional explosives. Others quickly announced the theft was a common robbery, not terrorism.
Still others advised that anyone touching or in proximity to exposed “highly radioactive” material risked quick and nearly certain death. If sold for scrap, as some feared, the material could end up affecting thousands should it end up in steel used in building materials or furniture.
The alarms were squelched for many last Thursday when officials discovered the cobalt in a field on the edge of Hueypoxtla, a farm town of 4,000 people on the high plains 40 miles northeast of Mexico City.
The case seemed to be solved a day later when federal police arrested six men in relation to the missing cobalt.
Four of them stand accused of inadvertently acquiring the toxic stash when they allegedly hijacked the truck transporting it. Two others tried to fence the stolen goods, police charge.
Still, it took nearly a week for Mexican nuclear security experts to locate the cobalt-60, determine it had not been compromised and package it for safe shipment to a radioactive waste facility.
Someone, likely the thieves, had dismantled the iron casing holding the cobalt before abandoning everything amid the broadcast warnings of its deadly potential.
But the protective tube containing the radioactive material had not been opened, Jaime Aguirre, who was leading the nuclear security commission’s recovery team, told anxious villagers Tuesday night, hours before the cobalt’s recovery was announced.
Therefore, Aguirre assured the villagers in a public meeting, the cobalt-60 posed no danger to Hueypoxtla’s people or environment, he said.
“Your land, your water, are going to remain completely clean,” Aguirre told the villagers who gathered shortly before sunset at an open air community center, the recovery operation visible across the harvested fields. “We are here to resolve this matter. The situation is controllable and is controlled.”
Many in the crowd weren’t buying it. Skepticism runs deep in Mexico, where officials have a well-earned reputation for downplaying or outright denying hazards affecting the population.
The gathered men, women and children berated both Aguirre and Huepoxtla Mayor Francisco Santillan, accusing them of deceit and a cover-up.
Below is a short clip captured by McClatchy correspondent Tim Johnson, in which you can hear the crowd heckling nuclear safety official Jaime Aguirre.
“You are lying,” retired school principal Raul Cardenas said in response to Aguirre’s assurances that the cobalt’s protective casing had not been breached. “If the problem were that simple you would already have taken [the cobalt-60] away.”
Led by Cardenas, some threatened to blockade the nearby toll highway that connects Mexico’s industrial heartland to Gulf Coast ports and the capital. Other residents called for non-government experts to be brought in to inspect the site. More called for payment for supposedly damaged crops or soil and life insurance to guard against cancer they fear could arise in the coming years.
“Don’t let them fool us, compañeros,” someone shouted, many in the crowd hollering in agreement. “Make them tell us the truth.”
The crowd forced reluctant officials to allow reporters, including crews from Mexico’s major television networks and newspapers, into the meeting.
Released just in time for the late-night television news broadcasts, the Energy Department’s announcement that the cobalt had been safely recovered could render the villagers’ protests moot.
The cobalt-60 apparently had been taken by mistake when thieves hijacked the truck that was transporting it at a highway gas station not far from Hueypoxtla, officials said.
It had been removed from an obsolete medical device at a government hospital in Tijuana, on the California border, and was destined for a facility that stores radioactive material near Hueypoxtla.
Mexican officials alerted the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna of the theft and launched a frantic search for the cobalt. They warned in media interviews that anyone coming into contact or near proximity to exposed cobalt-60 risked almost certain and quick death.
But Mauro Moya says he hadn’t heard those warnings when he came across the dismantled iron pump — the size of a truck transmission — that contained the material early on Dec. 5 and carried it home intending to sell it for scrap.
He saw neither the stolen truck nor the smaller capsule containing the cobalt, Moya said in an interview on Tuesday in the patio of his family’s small, cinder-block house on the edge of Hueypoxtla.
“Let’s be honest, times are tough, I needed the money,” said Moya, 45, an independent truck driver who thought the scrap would sell for enough money to keep food on the family’s table for at least two weeks. “Who would have thought you’d see so much iron lying on the side of the road?”
By early that afternoon, federal police and Energy Department experts were at his door, Moya said, scanning him and his family for radiation. After quarantining his neighborhood, the officials took Moya to the dusty lane between the fields where he found the iron.
The officials’ radiation scanning instruments sounded alarms at the site, Moya said. Soldiers and federal police cordoned off about a square mile of the fields and recovery operations began.
Officials examined Moya’s family and nearly two dozen others in Huepoxtla and said they were free of contamination.
But six men were arrested on charges of stealing the truck after turning up at a hospital in the nearby state capital of Pachuca fearing they had been contaminated. All the men were declared in good health, officials said.
A neighbor of Moya’s, who reportedly found and briefly handled the cobalt capsule, has been hospitalized with what may be radiation effects.
“Recovering a source of that level of intensity is not making enchiladas,” Juan Eibenschutz, executive director of the Nuclear Security and Safeguard Commission, said in a phone interview Wednesday, referring to the radioactive metal. “This is a very, very complex operation.”
The cobalt-60 will now be stored, along with other radioactive waste, at a 40-year-old facility of the National Institute of Nuclear Investigations, which sits near the farm village of Maquixco, about 30 miles from Hueypoxtla.
The loss and delayed recovery of the cobalt-60 — as well as the officials’ warning last week of how dangerous the material is — have renewed decades-long fears among villagers there. Many complain of increased cancer rates among local families.
“We have again seen the magnitude of the danger this material carries,” Julio Escobar, 60, the village’s senior elected official, told GlobalPost. “It isn’t right that they come to leave it here where there are a lot of people and livestock. There are plenty of empty deserts in places like Sonora.”