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Cobalt-60, and Lessons From a Mexican Theft 174

Posted by Soulskill
from the now-everybody-knows-where-to-get-some-cheap-cobalt-60 dept.
Lasrick writes "George Moore and Miles Pomper examine the theft of a truck containing Cobalt-60 and find that, while Mexico did the right thing and reported the theft promptly, they were under no obligation to do so according to international rules and the IAEA. This was true even though the stolen material was 3,000 curies, making it a Category 1 source (the most dangerous). Quoting: 'At a distance of 30.5 centimeters (1 foot) from an unshielded source with an activity level of 3,000 curies, the dose to a bystander would be about 37,000 Rem per hour (a measure of radiation exposure). This means that anyone within a foot of the source when it was out of its shield was being exposed to about 10 Rem per second, a level that would typically kill half of a population exposed to it for 30 seconds. ... The number of fatalities will not be nearly as high as it would have been if the source capsule had been left in a public place. Cobalt 60, like other high-risk radiological sources, is more lethal when it is kept intact as a high-strength source than it would be if spread using a radiological dispersal device such as a so-called “dirty bomb.” Nonetheless, had the Mexican source been used in a dispersal device, the economic consequences could have been extremely significant.'"
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Cobalt-60, and Lessons From a Mexican Theft

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  • by auric_dude (610172) on Friday December 13, 2013 @06:35PM (#45685017)
    An account of what happened and what could have happened via Steve Weintz https://medium.com/war-is-boring/26b40dd869fb [medium.com]
    • by Empiric (675968)
      Er, kobold metal, per the original etymology, as one might guess from the word.

      We don't want to unfairly give goblins a worse name than they already have, now...
  • So In Effect... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ackthpt (218170) on Friday December 13, 2013 @06:36PM (#45685029) Homepage Journal

    Had a terrorist put this under a seat cushion in a bus terminal, they could kill hundreds, perhaps thousands before it would eventually be tracked down.

    Damn dirty bombs, sneak attacks are more deadly.

    • Re:So In Effect... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ElementOfDestruction (2024308) on Friday December 13, 2013 @06:40PM (#45685053)
      You think they have a lot of seat cushions in Mexican bus terminals?

      Give me a break. Terrorists wouldn't waste their time - they'd use it as a dirty bomb for the media attention, they wouldn't be a pest and try to kill 1 person a day randomly over the next 12 years. Where's the attention in that?
      • Re:So In Effect... (Score:4, Interesting)

        by AK Marc (707885) on Friday December 13, 2013 @06:58PM (#45685179)
        Cut open the hand holds on a NYC subway and put it in there, then seal it back up. 1 a day would be hundreds. They'd track it down to a specific car within a day or two, and you could probably get it out that night. So kill hundreds in a subway, shutting down the system for a while, then take it back and do your dirty bomb the next day.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by ColdWetDog (752185)

          Dear Sir:

          Please sit down right where you are. Yes, that's right.
          Hands where we can see you.

          We shall be with you in a moment.

          Thank you for your cooperation.

          The Department of Homeland Security
          Internet Crazy Person Surveillance Group

        • by mythosaz (572040)

          Mass transit does seem the most vulnerable, and NYC subways seem the most dangerous.

          The cars themselves and/or the tracks/tunnels they ride on/in might actually have some sort of detection for radiation. A quick Google search says the NYPD patrols with handheld radiation detectors, so it's now a game of finding the most trafficked location that people linger for ~30 seconds in that doesn't have someone checking for radiation regularly. [That also probably rules out a lot of doctor and dentist offices, as

          • by Algae_94 (2017070)

            A Vegas taxi servicing the strip, or the shuttle bus between Harrah's and The Rio...

            You don't want to kill the driver before he picks up very many people do you?

        • Re:So In Effect... (Score:5, Insightful)

          by ImprovOmega (744717) on Friday December 13, 2013 @07:32PM (#45685441)
          I'm not sure such a terrorist would even live long enough to plant such a device. If it's strong enough to kill people who are sitting next to it, it will at least sicken, if not kill, the person who plants it.
          • by Pinhedd (1661735)

            yeah because Terrorists have proven to be so incredibly afraid of dying

            • yeah because Terrorists have proven to be so incredibly afraid of dying

              There's a world of difference between pressing a button that brings instant death and carrying material that will lead to a protracted, unimaginably painful death.

              And it would have to be a very protracted death, because if you're planting the stuff, you have to be able to escape the vicinity before starting to suffer symptoms -- the discovery of someone dying of radiation poisoning in a built-up area is going to get transport stopped and public areas roped-off.

        • Cut open the hand holds on a NYC subway and put it in there, then seal it back up. 1 a day would be hundreds. They'd track it down to a specific car within a day or two, and you could probably get it out that night. So kill hundreds in a subway, shutting down the system for a while, then take it back and do your dirty bomb the next day.

          Nice try Jose... This is a dangerous chunk of Co.

          By removing the shielding to make it dangerous to others you start
          a 30 second clock on yourself. I cannot believe anyone could
          get from a parking lot and hand carry the plug to a bench,
          hand hold or whatever.

          Some transport options come to mind but I would not want to play
          with them.

          Also for the most part this is a solid block of cobalt and not easy to
          disperse. Any bits are easy to detect at the end of a 10 foot pole
          and the small bits could be picked up with

          • by AK Marc (707885)
            So a lead-lined NBC suit wouldn't offer any protection? Piles of dead people, killed invisibly with no identifiable cause? That'd cause lots of terror.
            • by rubycodez (864176)

              no, NBC suits are not lead lined, nor could you line one with enough lead to be effective and still allow movement. NBC suits only protect against direct contact and ingesting of "hot particles", the word "particle" in this case meaning dirt, dust, metal flakes, etc.

              the cause of death and maimings of those in the vicinity would be very obvious

              • by AK Marc (707885)
                So a radiation suit doesn't protect against radiation? Seems like a silly name, and waste of money.
                • Re:So In Effect... (Score:4, Informative)

                  by Kilo Kilo (2837521) on Friday December 13, 2013 @11:17PM (#45686665)
                  Radiation "suits" aren't really a thing. There are some out there, but the only one's I've seen are similar to EOD suits. You're probably thinking of Level A HazMat suits which are chemical protective suits. People toss around NBC or CBRNE, but not all the words really go together, it's more about grouping together a bunch of very rare - yet very dangerous - threats.

                  Chemical and Biological can be paired up pretty easily because a lot of the protective equipment can be used for either.

                  Radioactive came to be separated from Nuclear because dirty bomb became such a buzzword. The actual fatalities from a dirty bomb would be relatively low, but the public's general fear of anything radioactive makes it a good choice for terrorists (using the strictest definition of terrorist).

                  Nuclear now specifically refers to a nuclear detonation and it shares some effects with Explosives except it has the added "benefits" of fallout.

                  Explosives is nothing new, but it gets lumped in with the rest because it's not an average threat for first responders.
                  • The actual fatalities from a dirty bomb would be relatively low, but the public's general fear of anything radioactive makes it a good choice for terrorists
                    Why do people always claim such nonsense?
                    Dirty Bomb is a term that summarizes any kind of dirty bomb. Perhaps that amount of Cobalt 60 would result in not many deaths, emphasize on 'perhaps'.

                    However if someone distributes 1kg Plutonium or a few more as a "dirty bomb" over New York City the death toll would likely be millions.

                    Proof: both Hiroshima and N

                    • by ultranova (717540)

                      However if someone distributes 1kg Plutonium or a few more as a "dirty bomb" over New York City the death toll would likely be millions.

                      Proof: both Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed ~ 100,000 people "instantly" or in the first days after explosion by "radiation". And: the same amount of people died the following 40 years due to intake or exposure of "radioactive dirt".

                      So a nuclear bomb containing 6.2 kilograms of plutonium and presumably producing far more radioactive fallout and direct radiation by the explos

                    • by rubycodez (864176)

                      false, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were air bursts, there was zero fallout. All the radiation poisonings were due to prompt exposure at detonation.

                    • by rubycodez (864176)

                      moreover, the purpose of the plutonium in that bomb was soley to be nuclear fuel, not a poison. Had ground bursts been made, that would be another matter, but the contents of the fireball went into the statosphere and so were diluted by being spread over the entire world over years.

                    • Yes, as the population density of new york is much higher, should be a no brainer.

                    • If there is an 'atomic mushroom' then there is fall out.
                      Also you should perhaps read up about the term "black rain".
                      Finally, except for the pretty new concept of a 'neutron bomb' all bombs close enough to the ground (that means not high atmosphere EMP bombs) produce fallout.

                    • Erm, did you ever see a photo of one of the two bombs? Sorry youare an complete idiot.
                      The stratosphere starts at 10-13km hight ... perhaps get a clue about historical facts before you write such nonsense.

                    • by rubycodez (864176)

                      Of course I know how the devices work. You are the ignorant one in need of education. If the fireball does not touch ground, it rises into stratosphere and there is no fallout. Look it up and educate yourself. There was zero fallout from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, look it up.

                  • by dkf (304284)

                    Radiation "suits" aren't really a thing. There are some out there, but the only one's I've seen are similar to EOD suits. You're probably thinking of Level A HazMat suits which are chemical protective suits. People toss around NBC or CBRNE, but not all the words really go together, it's more about grouping together a bunch of very rare - yet very dangerous - threats.

                    Chemical and Biological can be paired up pretty easily because a lot of the protective equipment can be used for either.

                    Where the hazard is from alpha and (to a lesser extent) beta emitters, the same gear will offer a lot of protection as the main hazards there are from ingestion (swallowing, breathing in) the emitters. Doubly so if the emitters are water-soluble or fat-soluble in typical biological conditions.

                    Gamma emitters are something else. You want them to stay well away from people normally because high-energy electromagnetic radiation is so penetrating.

                  • by Solandri (704621)

                    Radiation "suits" aren't really a thing. There are some out there, but the only one's I've seen are similar to EOD suits. You're probably thinking of Level A HazMat suits which are chemical protective suits. People toss around NBC or CBRNE, but not all the words really go together, it's more about grouping together a bunch of very rare - yet very dangerous - threats.

                    Chemical and Biological can be paired up pretty easily because a lot of the protective equipment can be used for either.

                    Certain radiation

                • Re:So In Effect... (Score:5, Informative)

                  by gagol (583737) on Friday December 13, 2013 @11:25PM (#45686689)
                  It protects from radiation POISONING, not radiation exposure. Unless you are willing to wear a couple feet thick concrete vest, you will be exposed to harmful radiation. The best method to mitigate it, is to limit exposure (see how workers of Chernobyl cleaned the roof of the reactor, good read).
                  • by rubycodez (864176)

                      If you received 20 REM dose in a short time you'd have radation poisoning, even if wearing a suit. rad suits protect from contamination by radioactive dirt and small debris, the wearers still have to monitor their total dose to stay under a limit.

                    yes, I've worked in a nuke plant and worn the hazmat suits

            • So a lead-lined NBC suit wouldn't offer any protection? Piles of dead people, killed invisibly with no identifiable cause? That'd cause lots of terror.

              An NBC suit does not protect from a flood of gamma radiation but it does protect
              the wearer from inhaling bits and dust. It also protects others because once removed
              it is sealed in a bag and disposed of. Any surface contamination on the suit would be disposed
              as controlled waste. The most lethal isotopes are alpha emitters that when inhaled become
              a serious health risk. So the suit protects the wearer from inhalation and others from cross contamination
              and dispersion.

        • by eulernet (1132389)

          Using radioactive weapons is probably more lethal, but it won't shock people as much as a suicide-bombing, with all the cameras around here.

          Terrorists would prefer to kill people in a cheaper and flashier way.

          • by AK Marc (707885)
            A dirty bomb would be scary, but killing people invisibly anywhere people are would also cause terror. Prove your bus seat or subway car isn't killing you. It'd destroy the economy to scare people away from going outside.
        • But how would you work it and live long enough to plant the stuff?

        • by b0r0din (304712)

          This probably couldn't even make it into NYC. There was a 60 minutes episode about this. NYC is basically on radiation lockdown. They do sweeps. I'm not saying it's impossible because Manhattan is a big city, but...perhaps unlikely.

        • So kill hundreds in a subway, shutting down the system for a while, then take it back and do your dirty bomb the next day.

          Except you won't because you'll be dead too from handling the thing.

        • Cut open the hand holds on a NYC subway and put it in there, then seal it back up. 1 a day would be hundreds. They'd track it down to a specific car within a day or two, and you could probably get it out that night. So kill hundreds in a subway, shutting down the system for a while, then take it back and do your dirty bomb the next day.

          Impractical. Suicide bombers die safe in the knowledge that death will be instant. Anyone setting this stuff into bus/train/underground seats is going to get a lethal dose and die slowly and painfully... that's not something many people are capable of putting themselves through, except when they get that "emergency" reaction (eg the technicians at Chernobyl and Fukushima).

          However, if you try to go onto a train in full radiation gear, you'll get caught.

      • Or release vague information about their dirty bomb, to create panic. Fortunately, the source would be easy to find if it was used in this way.

      • To add to that, while they would be able to scare the bejeebus out of a lot of people with the ensuing media storm, they could do the same thing without bothering with radioactive material extremely easy. Make a specific threat, even one that's absurd, and send some idiot with instructions to do it, and you'll terrify the sheep people for months. "OMG! Al qaeda is trying to bomb the US using the moon by hijacking the space shuttle!!!"
    • Had a terrorist put this under a seat cushion in a bus terminal, they could kill hundreds, perhaps thousands before it would eventually be tracked down.

      The article says that you would get a lethal dose in 30 seconds. That means one person sitting on that seat cushion would die even on a short bus ride. That _might_ get someone's attention. Then you would call paramedics who would get ill. Perhaps the bus would drive again, with a second person dying. At that point someone _would_ notice.

      • Re:So In Effect... (Score:5, Informative)

        by mjwalshe (1680392) on Friday December 13, 2013 @07:05PM (#45685233)
        Its not an immediate lethal dose you die in several days in a gruesome way - Stargate had an episode where one of Dr Jackson had this happen to him "Meridian" is the episode its a fairly realistic depiction of death by massive radiation exposure.
      • by sjames (1099)

        Not necessarily. A lethal dose of radiation doesn't kill immediately. Depending on how it was placed, you might have people ride the bus, go home, then think they must have food poisoning. A few days later, they would die. Local; restaurants would be in for a bad time until all were shut down and people kept dying.

        • by dwywit (1109409)

          That just might instigate a new protocol for dealing with people who die from "food poisoning" - check 'em for radiation before the autopsy.

          Although IIRC some of the symptoms from a lethal dose of radiation have distinct characteristics and aren't confused with other causes.

          • by sjames (1099)

            You assume there will actually be an autopsy. And that the coroner (not always an M.E.)would recognize radiation poisoning given that it's in the 'this never happens' category. There would be no residual radiation from gamma poisoning.

            It would probably come out eventually, but I'm betting not before a few cultures come back negative at least.

        • Re:So In Effect... (Score:5, Informative)

          by fluffy99 (870997) on Friday December 13, 2013 @11:56PM (#45686803)

          Correct. First known instance of a criticality accident happened at Los Alamos in 1945. Exposure was 510 rem plus additional exposure immediately after. He was pretty sick within hours, but it took him 25 days to die. A similar accident with the same material a year later killed the scientist in 9-days.

          • by LoRdTAW (99712)

            The infamous "Demon Core" - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demon_core [wikipedia.org]

            After those two accidents, hands-on criticality experiments were stopped and the demon core was put in a nuke and detonated for the Crossroads Able test. Yield was 23kt. The Demon Core weighed only 6.2kg or 14 lbs.

          • Re:So In Effect... (Score:4, Interesting)

            by Solandri (704621) on Saturday December 14, 2013 @02:46PM (#45690165)
            I'll post this again since it's relevant. A hospital worker in Israel exposed himself to a cobalt-60 radiation source for 1-2 minutes while trying to fix a sterilizer. The IAEA report of the incident [iaea.org] is pretty detailed, including photos and x-rays documenting his injuries and eventual demise a month later.

            During the Cold War, the Soviets had vastly more tanks than NATO. So one of the common hypothetical scenarios was an unstoppable Soviet invasion led by their tanks. The NATO response plan included detonating airburst nukes over the advancing army. While these would directly kill only a few near the hypocenter, soldiers in a much larger area would receive a lethal dose of radiation. These so-called walking dead would survive to fight a few more days or weeks before succumbing to their injuries. I suspect this scenario and particularly the term "walking dead" played some part in the genesis of the modern zombie movie. The movie widely credited with creating the zombie horde theme (Night of the Living Dead) was filmed in the late 1960s during the height of the Cold War.
      • by tibit (1762298)

        It's exactly like with poisonous mushrooms: you can ingest a lethal dose in 30 seconds; it doesn't mean you'll be dead in 30 seconds. Radiation poisoning, unless the dose is gigantic so as to cause instant burns, has delayed onset of symptoms and that's why it's so insidious. By the time you figure out what's wrong, there's nothing you can do. The difference between radiation poisoning and mushrooms is that with mushrooms, you can do a tox test. With gamma ray radiation poisoning from Co60, unless you look

    • by mythosaz (572040)

      There's plenty of more dangerous public locations, and a lot of semi-private ones would be worse.

      A doctor's office, or chair at the DMV would might get a dozen people a day. Ditto for plenty of public service waiting rooms. The plane that services US Airways flight 624 to Vegas probably goes back and forth 5-6 times a day, so that might get a dozen people -- but you'd have to get the '60 through security. The Disneyland Monorail probably gets someone every 20 minutes for 14 hours a day, but might be all

      • by ackthpt (218170)

        There's plenty of more dangerous public locations, and a lot of semi-private ones would be worse.

        A doctor's office, or chair at the DMV would might get a dozen people a day. Ditto for plenty of public service waiting rooms. The plane that services US Airways flight 624 to Vegas probably goes back and forth 5-6 times a day, so that might get a dozen people -- but you'd have to get the '60 through security. The Disneyland Monorail probably gets someone every 20 minutes for 14 hours a day, but might be all plastic. I'm sure there's *some* Disneyland/6 Flags/Magic Mountain ride that you could leave the '60 on if you had the right container that'd do the same as the monorail.

        I simply provided one example. Someone with more time and imagination could certainly come up with many more effective targets. For that matter, depending upon how much material there was available it could be spread over many targets.

        While a dirty bomb would be attention grabbing, something approximating a plague onset would not only put local people in fear, but over a much wider area.

        Back in 1995, when I was visiting Prague and three men were found to be driving around with 6 lbs of enriched Uranium i

        • Back in 1995, when I was visiting Prague and three men were found to be driving around with 6 lbs of enriched Uranium in their car, looking for a buyer, I had much the same thoughts.

          In much the same delusional way I am certain the TLA boyz will abuse any snooping capability they possess, it seems likely to me, an admittedly small sampling, that this is a material that has been on the market frequently enough for some of the bad guys/freedom fighters to have acquired it. What the duck are they waiting for?

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        There's plenty of more dangerous public locations, and a lot of semi-private ones would be worse.

        You'd conceal it next to a queue.

    • Terrorists want spectacular explosions preferably captured in tape and replayed endlessly in CNN. There are thousand other ways to kill more people (probably, I really don't know, so please do not try to track me down NSA creep) but civilization survives because the terrorists are dumb and unimaginative.
    • by rhook (943951)

      They'd have more luck putting it in the back of a big rig and getting in line at the San Ysidro border crossing.

    • by freeze128 (544774)
      Cave Johnson, is that you?
  • 61 (Score:5, Funny)

    by puddingebola (2036796) on Friday December 13, 2013 @06:38PM (#45685031) Journal
    '61 was a much better year for Cobalt. Cobalt-60 far overrated, and people are paying too much for it on the open market.
    • Re:61 (Score:5, Funny)

      by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdot AT hackish DOT org> on Friday December 13, 2013 @06:55PM (#45685159)

      people are paying too much for it on the open market

      Typical knee-jerk Cobalt60-skepticism here on Slashdot. Everyone wants to compare it to tulip mania and yell "bubble", and won't believe that the recent price run-up is because people are genuinely finding it useful as a non-state-controlled currency. USD's days are numbered; in the future, coins glow blue.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by ackthpt (218170)

        Swap your dollars for a Co60-Coin, it has a longer half-life than Bitcoins.

      • by QilessQi (2044624)

        USD's days are numbered; in the future, coins glow blue.

        And since no one will want to hang onto Cobalt-60 coins for too long, all that frantic spending will stimulate the economy!

      • by MarkRose (820682)

        Call me a skeptic all you want, but I'm telling you, if you put your money into Cobalt60 now, you'll be lucky to even have half five years from now. The value of the USD may be eroding, but not at 13% per year! Stay away from it like it were radioactive!

        Coins are old school. The future is in gaseous money! And you'll like this: it's also blue! That's right friends, the future is Iodine131! You can't spend it fast enough! There is so much demand for it that you can't keep it around! Not only that, it doesn't

      • by tool462 (677306)

        What a bunch of crap. Everybody knows Co-60 is a deflationary currency. If you hold it, half of it will be nothing but nickels in about 5 years (Ni-60 to be exact). Oh, and you'll be dead.

    • '58 was event better, by an order of magnitude...

    • Re:61 (Score:4, Funny)

      by mythosaz (572040) on Friday December 13, 2013 @07:29PM (#45685421)

      I opened 750ml bottle of Cobalt '60, but less than 1ml of it was still fresh.

  • Have any radiation-scorched-flesh Mexican men's bodies been found to date?

    Because really, I can't believe in the danger we've been told about until the headlines of "them banditos are doomed, they opened the capsule" are proven true.

    • Yeah, deadly dose within minutes they said.....but all the suspects were released from the hospital with no apparent problems. Granted, there could be longer term impacts, but it goes to show how much radiation fears can be overblown. Typically you get the worst case scenario description in the press.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    A similar device got loose in Brazil back in 1987, and serves as an example of the kind of mayhem that can heppen when one of these sources get loose even in the hands of non-malicious people. The story on it in wikipedia is interesting - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goi%C3%A2nia_accident.

  • just how many libraries of congress is that?

    I'd at least expect a fukushima or something...

  • This means that anyone within a foot of the source when it was out of its shield was being exposed to about 10 Rem per second, a level that would typically kill half of a population exposed to it for 30 seconds

    Yes, but the other half would get super-powers.

    I know how this stuff works. I read books. I been trying to break into x-ray labs for years hoping to get, like, you know, all buff and everything. Go ahead and laugh. We'll see who's laughing when I'm a one-man Fantastic Four.

  • Everyone is claiming that if you were within 3 feet of the Cobalt-60, you would be dead within 30 seconds or within an hour. How come the guys who stole the Cobalt-60 and opened the box are still alive? Lots of doom and gloom but the thieves are still alive [theverge.com] days after and none appear in grave danger.

    • From TFA:

      No contamination resulted because the capsule (typically a small welded stainless steel container that holds a wire containing cobalt ) was not itself opened.

      • by ppanon (16583)
        So Cobalt 60 [goodreads.com] was really Fe 56!
      • It it is contaminated, then it has (traces of) radioactive material on it.

        It it is irradiated, then it has ben exposed to ionizing radiation.

        Something can get irradiated without getting contaminated (easy to see if the source of the radiation isn't radioactive material, e.g. an x-ray tube), but if it's contaminated, then it is usually also irradiated.

    • by Ihlosi (895663)
      Everyone is claiming that if you were within 3 feet of the Cobalt-60, you would be dead within 30 seconds or within an hour.

      You'll be dead in thirty seconds, but it'll take your body a few (fairly excrucitating) days or even weeks to notice that it should be dead.

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