A Woman's Perspective On The Times We Live In

December 11, 2013

Unclear Message Regarding Missing Mexican Radioactive Waste

    I've kept my eye on this story for the last week or so, and I'm not really satisfied that we have any definitive answers.  Here's why it is bothering me ... Last week, Mexico's nuclear safety watchdog, the National Commission for Nuclear Security and Safeguards (NCNSS), reported that a truck carrying dangerous radioactive material from a disused medical device was stolen.  Of course, they said there was nothing to worry about .... so long as its container was not broken or tampered with.
     So among the initial questions that popped into my head were "Was this a planned robbery?  Who stole the truck -- was it one of the drug cartels, or possibly a foreign terrorist cell?  Can this material be used to create a dirty bomb, and are the Alphabet Agencies on the lookout?"
     According to Mexican authorities, the truck was transporting a cobalt-60 teletherapy source from a hospital in the northern city of Tijuana to a radioactive waste storage center, and a search was under way in six states and Mexico City.  But wouldn't you think that proper security measures would have been taken, such as GPS tracking devices on the truck or radioactive detectors at the Border?
     For those of you who need a little more technical information, Co-60 is a product of neutron activation of other metals. When Iron 59 (Fe59) is exposed to a strong neutron flux, the iron captures a neutron and converts via decay to Co60.  Anyway you look at it, the result is radioactive material, and the effects of coming in contact with it are not pleasant.
     It is my understanding that after entering a living mammal (such as a human being), some of the Co-60 is excreted in feces. The remainder is taken up by tissues, mainly the liver, kidneys, and bones, where the prolonged exposure to gamma radiation can cause cancer.  That's just the beginning, though.  People smarter than me pointed out that if you attach a bomb to radioactive material and detonate it, it can in 'fact' become a 'dirty bomb'. The only question that remains is just how lethal it becomes.
     But there was no need to worry, right?  After all, our borders are secure, and there's not a chance that this radioactive material could be smuggled across our Southern border, correct?  Then came the report that the missing truck had been found.  Some media outlets reported that while the truck had been found, the container of radioactive waste was empty.  Other media sources reported that "at least some of the radioactive cobalt had been recovered on Wednesday."  But CNN reported that officials weren't sure whether any of the cobalt was missing, according to Juan Eibenschutz Hartman, head of Mexico's NCNSS.  In fact, Mr. Hartman said the container containing cobalt was found about a kilometer away from the truck and had been opened.
     As the story continued to unfold during the week, it seemed as though the questions I had asked myself were not as irrational as they seemed.  According to the same CNN source, both the driver and his assistant were taken to an empty lot where they were bound and told not to move. They heard one of the assailants use a walkie-talkie type device or phone to tell someone, "It's done."  So let the conspiracy theories begin!
     And as late as this last weekend, health authorities in Mexico City were saying that six people were being checked for possible radiation exposure.  They had been released from the hospital, but remained under detention.  The men were turned over to investigators, and the possible motive for stealing trhe truck and its radioactive cargo were still unknown.
     So this story seems to be languishing with no real information forthcoming.  How much, if any of the Co60 is still missing?  Who are these men and what were their intentions?  Will we ever know the results of the investigation, or will this be just another mystery that just fades from the front page?  We can only pray that God will protect this nation and hinder any diabolical plots for this dangerous material.  He knows the plans that have been made, and He has the Power and Authority to hinder and confuse the evil intentions.  To Him be the Glory!

Ezekiel 11:21     "But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations, I will bring their deeds upon their own heads, declares the Lord God."


  1. Hi, it's been a while since I've chimed in, but this is a topic where I know something a least a little bit interesting.
    Yup, this story is very, very intriguing. When I first read about it, I saw that it dealt with Cobalt-60. Your discussion of how iron molecules are activated in a neutron flux is right -- and submariners know this radio-isotype because certain materials we use are susceptible to activation as Co-60 in the reactors that power our boats. Co-60 gives off very high energy gamma radiation, which is highly penetrating and very dangerous to human tissue. We have occasional areas where corrosion products - essentially rust - can collect in pipe bends and create what we call "hot spots" where the amount of Co-60 in those spots can make radiation levels very dangerous to extended human exposure.
    Co-60 has a half-life of about 5.2 years, meaning that it reduces the amount of emitted radiation by one-half every 5.2 years. For a radio-isotope to go to essentially zero, we use a thumb-rule of 5 half-lives before we say it's all decayed away. For Co-60, that's 25+ years! The only 'good' thing here is that Co-60 isn't soluble in water, and it doesn't easily bond with anything else. In other words, once you find it, you can clean it up fairly easily. It doesn't dissolve and spread through a water table and it doesn't 'stick' to much. But if you are near it for too long and unshielded, it WILL kill you eventually. Your choice is to maximize your shielding, minimize your exposure time, or maximize your distance (ask anybody who works with nuclear materials about "Time, Distance, Shielding" and they'll instantly know you're talking how to stay safe from radiation exposure).
    There is a near-legendary story about a radioactive source used for x-raying construction welds was accidentally lost and brought home by children of a Mexican family. This would have been >30 years ago. In short, almost all the family members died due to radiation exposure. The radioactive gamma source was so strong that it turned the family's crystal glasses dark by interacting with lead (Pb) in the glass. I remember only the father survived, and only because he was out of the house at work while the mom, grand mom and kids were at home. Radioactive sources are VERY dangerous because of the very large amounts of gamma radiation they give off. Most medical sources are much safer, because they use specific electrical stimulation to give off a narrow stream of radiation only when power is applied. Your average medical x-ray is actually very safe and limited in the amount of radiation it gives off. But prolonged exposure to an energized medical source should be avoided (that's why the technician stands behind their special partition - it's usually got a layer of lead metal lining). Weld inspection sources are MUCH stronger and don't need electrical power applied to make them work. We used them for inspection x-rays of submarine hull welds and it was a BIG deal to make sure everybody was nowhere near when the source was out of its containment box - usually a very heavy, lead-lined 'coffin' that stopped the gamma radiation from getting out except for a small door that was opened to allow the gamma radiation to stream out, pass through the weld and be imaged by a large film sheet.

  2. Construction inspection sources like this give off levels of gamma radiation that interact with humans measured in "REM" - Roentgen equivalent man. Anything more than 5 Rem of exposure per year is of medical concern. A chest x-ray is in the range of 100 mRem = .1 Rem (mRem is a thousandth of a Rem). So if you get more than 50 chest x-rays in a year, you should talk to your doctor. Most x-rays are focussed on arms, legs, or the head -- not too much concern because they are away from major organs (and no, the brain isn't badly influenced by moderate radiation exposure). Flying across the USA in an air plane will give a person a gamma exposure from solar radiation of about 50 to 100 mRem (one bonus for the Red Eye flight since there's no sunshine!). More than 30 Rem in a month can be health threatening (do you fly coast-to-coast every day?). A C0-60 source will give of gamma levels in the HUNDREDS of Rem levels per hour. So, a human could suffer dangerous exposure by being near an open source like this in MINUTES. And repeated exposure will add up to even more dangerous levels.
    So, after this story first broke, and then the report of the containment box being found empty came out, I figured we would see another story in a few days about people dying from radiation exposure. But that hasn't happened. And like you, I've been waiting.
    I think it's prudent to be concerned about a dirty bomb in this case. If the Co-60 source was pulverized into powder, and then "blown up" by a bomb, it could contaminate a pretty large area with very radioactive material. Sure, the amount of radiation given off by bits of powdered Co-60 is lower than the full source, but if it's powder that's in hair or clothing, it can add up quickly.

  3. I also think we should be worried about something else: pulverized Co-60 spread by a fanatic willing to clandestinely spread it over an area where a lot of people come an go could be a slow-acting "poison" that would slowly but seriously accumulate over time to kill or sicken many, many people before they figured out what was going on. Imagine the track area at a subway stop where people get on and off the train at a very busy place. How often is the junk along the track cleaned up? Especially if it's just 'dust'? But a lot of people stand next to the edge waiting for their train. And a lot of people are standing in the cars that are stopped for getting on and off. Nobody would notice their exposure in a day, a week, or maybe even a month. But after a few months, you could see a lot of folks who use/wait at that subway stop getting flu-like symptoms, blood disorders, and other maladies that weren't explainable by the usual colds or infections. And in more time, there would be a lot of unexplainable deaths…with more coming because the powder was still there and undetected. You can't really see, smell or taste "radiation." Or maybe this source has left in its original finger-sized shape and just stuck into a small space in the roof or under a bench of a bus or subway car? Anybody in that bus or car will get some severe radiation exposure without ever knowing it. A rush-hour group of people in a subway could get a lethal exposure dose in just one ride, but not show signs of radiation poisoning for a few days. A European tourist could visit New York, ride the subway, and not show up at their local hospital in a bad way for a week. How many people will be standing in Times Square for New Years? That little metal tube thingy in the gutter isn't just something that fell off a taxi's undercarriage. Scary stuff.
    In short, this Co-60 source needs to be found, and anybody who was near it needs to be treated for dangerous radiation exposure. I hope we hear some good news soon.
    I don't want to start a rush, but one of those portable radiation monitors could give an early warning. I don't have one, but I don't frequent areas that are likely targets. And anybody thinking they need iodine tablets shouldn't bother. Co-60 is gamma radiation. Keeping radioactive iodine from accumulating in the thyroid gland is to limit alpha-radiation, which is whole different (and long) topic of discussion.

    1. Well, I was hoping that someone would convince me that my skepticism and concern weren't necessary ... that I was blowing things out of proportion. But I trust your information and expertise, so now it's time to really stay alert and keep an eye on this story. My worry is this: it seems to have fallen off the radar of the reporting agencies, which gives the authorities an excuse to slack off their investigation. Makes me think they are just crossing their fingers that nothing serious happens.