VIENNA: Thieves in Mexico have stolen a truck containing potentially "extremely dangerous" radioactive material used in medical treatment, the UN atomic watchdog said Wednesday.
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 on Monday, 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 IAEA said it was informed about the theft by Mexico’s CNSNS nuclear security authority.
"The Mexican authorities are currently conducting a search for the source and have issued a press release to alert the public," the IAEA said in a statement.
The material could in theory be put in a so-called "dirty bomb" -- an explosive device spreading the radioactive material over a wide area.
Such a "radiological dispersal device" or RDD would be hugely less lethal than an atomic bomb but is much easier to make and could still cause mass panic.
Experts have long warned about the danger posed by the large amounts of such material held in hospitals, university campuses and factories around the world under often insufficient security.
Last year alone, the IAEA recorded 17 cases of illegal possession and attempts to sell nuclear materials and 24 incidents of theft or loss. It says this is the "tip of the iceberg".
Many cases have involved former parts of the Soviet Union, such as Chechnya, Georgia and Moldova -- where in 2011 several people were arrested trying to sell weapons-grade uranium -- but not only.