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Originally published December 12 2013

Stolen cobalt-60 proves how easily dirty bomb materials can be acquired and deployed

by J. D. Heyes

(NaturalNews) Privacy abuses and wholesale spying by the National Security Agency notwithstanding, policy analysts and experts generally agree that, for the foreseeable future, a major threat to U.S. national security are weapons of mass destruction.

Such weapons are most often classified as being chemical, biological or nuclear in nature and capable of killing, maiming and wounding a large number of Americans in an attack.

Perhaps the most significant of these threats is the nuclear one and, in particular, a nuclear threat posed by a so-called "dirty bomb" - not an atomic weapon, per se, but an explosive device laced with radioactive material.

Not many Americans know that this threat was made chillingly possible recently with the theft of highly radioactive material from a truck in Mexico. As reported by The Associated Press:

A missing shipment of radioactive cobalt-60 was found [recently] near where the stolen truck transporting the material was abandoned in central Mexico, the country's nuclear safety director said.

The highly radioactive material had been removed from its container, officials said, and one predicted that anyone involved in opening the box could be in grave danger of dying within days.

Kills within a day or two

Cobalt-60 is a common element in medical imaging equipment, and this batch appeared to come from obsolete radiation therapy equipment that is systematically being replaced throughout Mexico's health system.

The batch in question "was coming from the general hospital in the northern border city of Tijuana," the AP reported, quoting Juan Eibenschutz, director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards.

"Fortunately there are no people where the source of radioactivity is," Eibenschutz said, noting that the cobalt-60 was found by authorities in a rural area about a half-mile from the town of Hueypoxtla, an agricultural community of about 4,000 people.

He said the material posed no threat to the people of the town when it was discovered, and no evacuations were ordered.

But what is troubling is the amount of such thefts south of the border. The AP reported that about a half-dozen thefts of radioactive materials are reported annually in Mexico, but Eibenschutz said none of those thefts appear to have been aimed directly at stealing cobalt-60.

Maybe not thus far, but given the number of annual thefts, how much more time will it take for some terrorist group to figure out how easy it is to get their hands on such materials?

More from the AP:

Commission physicist Mardonio Jimenez said it was the first time cobalt-60 had been stolen and extracted from its container. The only threat was to whoever opened the box and later discarded the pellets of high-intensity radioactive material that was being transported to a waste site. It had been used in medical equipment for radiation therapy.

"The person or people who this took out are in very great risk of dying," Jimenez said, adding that the normal survival rate would be between one and three days.

Threat not limited to Mexico

That is a scary proposition when you consider how deadly such a highly radioactive material would be if released in a U.S. city.

But the threat is not just in Mexico. A recent Government Accountability Office report says the U.S. bears its share of the theft of radioactive materials from our hospitals as well. As reported by ABC News in 2012:

Eleven years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Government Accountability Office has released a report saying that hospitals have been negligent in securing the radioactive materials they use to treat cancer patients, potentially putting the materials in the hands of terrorists who could use them to make a dirty bomb.

"Although we realize how important these facilities and equipment are, they have to be secured," Gene Aloise, director of national resources and environment at the GAO, said.

The GAO said it found that four out of five hospitals in the U.S. have failed to put safeguards in place.


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