The Accidental Mexican Nuclear Heist Wasn't a One Off

By Alex Chitty

A rather grainy image of the cobalt container (image courtesy of the National Commission on Nuclear Safety and Safeguards of Mexico's Energy Secretary)

Last Monday morning, in the town of Tepojaco, north of Mexico City, six truck-jacking bandits got really, really unlucky. Hoping to grab themselves a lorry and a load of whatever it is that Mexican truck robbers like robbing from trucks, they pulled a driver and his mate from their cab at gunpoint, beat them, nicked their Volkswagen Worker lorry and hit the road.

It didn’t work out. Hours after the incident, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear energy watchdog, announced the truck had been carrying pellets of cobalt-60, a highly dangerous radioactive material used for cancer treatment. The stuff had depleted and was on its way from Tijuana in the north to a waste storage centre in the capital. The robbers had allegedly stolen cargo that would turn their faces into a seeping red mess of blisters (or possibly kill them slowly) if they so much as copped a peek inside its protective casing. As is usual for incidents of this type, the theft had triggered an alert at the IAEA’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria.

Cue a short-lived panic. As with any publicised loss of radioactive gear, the theft got rolling news channels (especially those in Mexico’s northern neighbour), fretting over the danger of a “dirty bomb” – a theoretical weapon, made by mixing radioactive stuff with normal explosives – popping up. Despite the fact that no dirty bomb has ever been detonated and that if one were used it might not even be that bad, visions of al Qaeda militants cheekily smuggling the cobalt north abounded.

The heist, however, was much less exciting that that. Despite the widely televised warnings not to mess with the cobalt, the estúpidos let curiosity get the better of them, cracking open the radiation-proof casing and taking a look inside. The IAEA then warned, “it would probably be fatal to be close to this amount of unshielded radioactive material for a period in the range of a few minutes to an hour”. Shortly after, the six turned up, probably looking pretty sheepish, at a hospital in central Mexico. Police cordoned off the facility and arrested them.

Some sought after "yellowcake" uranium (image via)

The Mexican incident got a lot of attention. But perhaps the most surprising part of the story is that these things happen much more often than you would think. In the past year, the IAEA has counted 24 cases of theft or loss of nuclear stuff, mostly in ex-Soviet Union countries. In the 19 years before that, there were about 1,700 similar incidents. Most involved plutonium and uranium, and – like smuggling weed on the ferry back from Amsterdam – you can be sure far more gets through than gets nabbed by cops. Unlike the Mexican robbers, it seems the Eastern European nuke smugglers know exactly what they’re after.

The question, then, is why? According to the IAEA, criminals will steal and smuggle radioactive material for one of two reasons: either for the “malevolent use of stolen nuclear materials for terrorism or blackmail”, or for the development of a “military programme of a State striving for possession of nuclear weapons”. Obviously, neither is good.

Take North Korea. The pariah state needs a steady flow of uranium (and probably plutonium) to keep its controversial nuclear programme rolling, and according to one analyst, seems to get its gear from a complex network of smugglers around the world. The UN, claimed Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace earlier this year, are watching ports from the UAE to Malaysia, the Cayman Islands and Turkey for signs of nuclear material and equipment smuggling by North Korea. Back in 2009, rumours surfaced that a North Korean delegation had been sniffing around old uranium mines deep in the Congolese jungle, not far from Shinkolobwe, the site of an old US-built uranium mine.

These WikiLeaks cables show how much the US and others worry about the issue, referring to radiation sensors installed by American agencies along borders all over the world. Known as the “Second Line of Defence”, according to one cable, each time a border-mounted detector goes off, US diplomats in the country in question are hauled from their beds and asked to investigate. According to another, the alarms have gone off at least 500 times in the last few years. In Eastern European states like Georgia, where gangsters hawking nuclear material is more common than you might think (last year, undercover cops scored some weapons-grade uranium near the Turkish border), the detectors are highly valued, despite frequent false alarms. Not content with quietly monitoring the world’s borders, the US is planning to buy drones able to monitor radiation levels around smuggling routes.

Moldova is another hotspot. In 2010, police seized 1.8kg of “yellowcake” uranium in the capital Chişinau. They took it off four smugglers with big plans to make $11 million from a sale to a dodgy regime for military purposes (see above video). In June this year, the IAEA announced a 2011 police raid in Chişinau – they nabbed a guy on “a leafy street in the centre of the capital”, seizing “several grammes of highly-enriched uranium” – a potential building block for a bomb. At the time, the IAEA’s security boss Khammar Mrabit was surprised at the crooks’ level of technical knowledge, expressing concern at the “growing lengths to which some criminals are prepared to go in order to trade in nuclear and other radioactive materials, using shielded containers to evade detection systems”.

Governments are often directly implicated in these jobs. You might not have read about it, but last month in Hamburg, Germany, four men were banged up for smuggling reactor parts to Iran for use in the Islamic Republic's “heavy water” plant in Arak, a crucial part of its nuclear programme. By working with Iranian front companies in Azerbaijan and Turkey, they’d tricked the German authorities into thinking the parts were for benign programmes in those states.

US spies tipped off the Germans, who found hundreds of incriminating documents at properties in Hamburg, Oldenburg and Weimar, along with the contents of a suitably shady-sounding email address used in the dealings: ghost18273@hotmail.com. It now turns out that Iran was secretly negotiating with the US and others over nukes at exactly that time, so it’s interesting that the flow seemed to continue even while agreements were underway to pause development at Arak.

Meanwhile in Mexico, specialists have just finished using a robot to move the canister of cobalt from the cornfield where the truck thieves dumped it. A farmer has been admitted to hospital with signs of radiation sickness. Next time you jack a van, check there’s something useful inside. Next time you’re passing through Moldova, watch out for moustached men with weird-looking packages who still use hotmail.

Follow Alex on Twitter: @alexchitty

More stuff about terrifying weapons:

WATCH – Bulgarian Dirty Bombs

An Old Japanese Doctor Who Survived Hiroshima

How to Prepare for a North Korean Invasion

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