Mexican authorities have recovered a stolen cargo truck that was hauling radioactive medical waste, but a piece of equipment containing dangerous nuclear material was missing.
The truck, which was stolen Monday from a gas station in central Mexico, 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.
He said radioactivity has been detected about a 1 km from where the stolen truck and empty container were found in the state of Mexico. Authorities have cordoned off the area.
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 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.
The material could not be used to make a nuclear bomb, but could be used in a dirty bomb, a conventional explosive that disseminates radioactive material, he said.
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. It was coming from the general hospital in the northern border city of Tijuana, Eibenshutz said. The thieves most likely wanted the white 2007 Volkswagen cargo vehicle with a moveable platform and crane.
The thieves likely didn't know what the truck was carrying, he said, and may have discarded the metal container, which he said is about a meter square.
"If someone finds a big chunk of metal with radiation symbols all over it, they should notify us immediately and don't open it," Eibenschutz said.