WASHINGTON — The International Atomic Energy Agency is reporting a truck carrying "extremely dangerous" radioactive material intended for use in medical treatment has been stolen in Mexico, according to the Sydney Morning Herald:
"The truck was transporting a cobalt-60 teletherapy source from a hospital in the northern city of Tijuana to a radioactive waste storage centre when it was stolen in Tepojaco near Mexico City, the International Atomic Energy Agency said.
"At the time the truck was stolen, the source was properly shielded. However, the source could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the shielding, or if it was damaged," it said.
The material isn’t sufficient to make a conventional nuclear weapon but could theoretically be used to make a "dirty bomb."
Disturbing as the headline is, it’s worth keeping in mind — though not necessarily comforting — just how much black-market nuclear material is already floating around. The IAEA documented "17 cases of illegal possession and attempts to sell nuclear materials and 24 incidents of theft or loss" of nuclear materials last year alone, most of them in the former Soviet Union. Over the last two decades, there have been more than 1,700 such incidents, and the agency believes there may be about 2,000 tonnes of black-market plutonium and highly enriched uranium scattered around 40 countries.
In 2007 alone, Russia reported that authorities had thwarted more than 850 attempts to smuggle highly radioactive materials in and out of the country. Presumably, many others had slipped through.
Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010 detailed what the U.S. government calls its "second line of defence — America’s diplomatic corps who are called out in the middle of the night when radiation detectors goes off on a border crossing or smugglers turn up with fissile or radioactive materials in his pocket." This had happened about 500 times in the last 15 years.
Given that we haven’t seen a rash of dirty-bomb attacks, it seems safe to assume that most of this stuff is being resold on the black market rather than used by terrorists. Just a few days ago, an AP report discussed how Mexican cartels were diversifying their businesses, moving into fields including oil theft, piracy and even illegal mining. Radioactive material sales would certainly seem to fit the mold.
Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.