Mexican authorities recovered a stolen truck with radioactive materials Wednesday, after it was stolen near Mexico City early Tuesday morning.
The radioactive component was found in the town of Hueypoxtia, less than 2 miles from where it had been stolen. The hazardous material had been removed from its container and left only a few yards away from the stolen 2007 Volkswagen truck.
The truck was reported stolen by the International Atomic Energy Agency after the driver and his assistant were held at gunpoint at a gas station and ordered to give the gunman their keys. The driver and the passenger were then tied up and dropped off at a nearby parking lot.
The truck and its hazardous cargo were making its way from a general hospital in Tijuana to a nuclear waste facility to dispose of the radioactive material, known as cobalt-60.
Cobalt is typically used to treat cancer but could also "be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the shielding, or if it was damaged," the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a press release.
The radioactive material can also be used to make so-called "dirty bombs." In a 2012 security summit, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano warned that such a bomb "detonated in a major city could cause mass panic, as well as serious economic and environmental consequences."
But officials believe the thieves had no intention of using the hazardous material or even knew the truck was carrying the material. Robberies are common in the area and the truck was deemed to be the only thing the thieves were after, according to officials.
"The vehicles are expensive because of the mechanisms to load and unload heavy material. That type of theft is very common in that area," Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission official Mardonio Jimenez told CNN. "That's why we feel the people who did this have no idea what they stole."
Jimenez believes that the thieves may be ill or may have already died due to the great radioactive exposure they would have experienced after opening the container.
"The person or people who took this out are in very great risk of dying," Jimenez said. After being exposed to such large amounts of radiation the survival rate ranges between one and three days, he said. "They will eventually have to go to a hospital, and we'll be waiting for them," Jimenez said.
But authorities have not revealed whether any suspects have been found, USA Today reported.
A 500-meter perimeter where the cobalt was found has been sealed off by the military and local officials are evaluating the residents to make sure no one was exposed to the radiation. The cleanup is expected to take weeks, with the possibility of assistance from the U.S. or Canada, according to CNN.