Mexican authorities have located the shipment of radioactive cobalt-60 that got missing after a truck was stolen in central Mexico.
Experts have said those who removed the material could be in grave danger as the radioactive pellets emit such strong radiation that could cause acute radiation sickness possibly capable of killing a human in three days.
"The person or people who this took out are in very great risk of dying," said Mardonio Jimenez, a physicist at the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards of Mexico.
According to Mexican authorities, this was the first incident when cobalt-60 had been stolen and taken out of its container. Fortunately, the perpetrators got rid of the material about half a mile from a nearest village, far enough not to put inhabitants at risk.
When the truck was stolen, the shipment of the highly radioactive cobalt was being transferred to a nuclear waste storage facility, having been previously used in a hospital in Tijuana for radiotherapy before obsolete equipment was replaced.
So far, no hospital in Mexico has reported having received a patient with radiation exposure.
Police and military units on the scene put up a 500-yard cordon around the site.
According to Mexican authorities, there was nothing to indicate the theft of the cobalt was intentional or in any way intended for an act of terrorism.
According to Juan Eibenschutz, director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards, the company transporting the material breached the rules at they haven’t had a GPS tracker installed in the van.
The driver, Valentin Escamilla Ortiz, told authorities he was sleeping in the truck when two men with a gun approached him at about 1.30am. They made him get out, bound his hands and feet and left him at a vacant site nearby.
The cobalt-60 health risk depends on time of exposure and distance to the pellets, said Dr Fred Mettler, a University of New Mexico's radiology professor and a US representative to the United Nations on radiation safety.
"If you hold the source in your hand for five or six or eight minutes you are probably going to get enough radiation to your whole body that may well kill you," he said. "But if somebody is across the street, they are not going to enough to really make them sick."
On average, half a dozen thefts of radioactive materials are reported in Mexico each year and none had proved to be aimed at the cargo itself.