The Cobalt-60 Accident of Ciudad Juarez is the story of how a stupid human mistake ended up contaminating almost an entire country.
HBO’s Chernobyl gave us a raw glimpse of the devastating consequences a nuclear reaction can have. Not only that, even today, the Chernobyl accident is still considered one of the worst nuclear disasters in history for the number of victims and how it was dealt with by the authorities at the time. If that’s not enough, we must say that it was this accident that made the world aware of the risks of radioactivity and nuclear reactions. So, Chernobyl might’ve passed through history as the worst nuclear incident, but it’s actually not the only one or even the worst, depending on how we measure these horrid events.
Just a couple of years before Chernobyl, ignorance, corruption, and total lack of common sense led to one of the biggest radioactive accidents of all time, and definitely the worst in all the American Continent. Known as the Cobalt-60 accident of Ciudad Juarez, a small and kind of stupid human mistake ended up contaminating almost an entire country and exposing thousands and thousands of people to the perils of radioactivity.
Engine head containing 1,003 curies of radioactivity
It all happened the night of December 6th, 1983, when Vicente Sotelo and Ricardo Hernández, two maintenance workers at the Medical Center of Specialties in Ciudad Juarez were allowed to take and sell whatever they wanted from the hospital’s warehouse. Among loads of junk stored, they saw a machine that could give them some good money if they sold it in pieces. This radiotherapy machine had been bought illegally by the hospital from a company in Texas. That particular model had been taken out of circulation because it had manufacturing defects.
Long story short, Vicente and Ricardo decided to disassemble the machine with the few tools and expertise they had: hitting it with a hammer. When they reached the engine head of the machine they were curious to see what was inside that huge box of approximately 100 kg. What they didn’t know is that by breaking the box, they unleashed 6,010 pellets of cobalt-60, a synthetic radioactive isotope of cobalt with the force of 1,003 curies. To put it into perspective, being exposed for a significant amount of time to a single curie could fry some of your organs.
Radioactivity starts to spread
After satisfying their curiosity, the two men loaded the company’s pick-up truck, including, of course, the pieces from the machine, and took everything to a recycling dumpster. Along the way, the machine's engine head continued to spread the cobalt-60 pellets. The back of the truck was also filled with these small radioactive pieces. They were happy to sell everything for a low price and decided to call it a day.
So, by now, not only were these men exposed to these highly radioactive materials, but they also spread these pieces all over the street on the way to the dumpster and left basically a bomb of cobalt-60. Bear that in mind. Vicente, parked the pick-up near his house only to find out later on that the battery had been stolen. The now-radioactive truck was left parked for about three months in a densely-populated neighborhood near the Rio Grande.
Yonke Fénix dumpster
Meanwhile, in the dumpster, the machine's engine head and all the pieces went to a pile that was constantly manipulated with cranes. The magnetic field of the cranes automatically caught the radioactivity of the pellets and the engine head, contaminating the metal they got in touch with. If this wasn’t enough, this dumpster had an agreement with several smelter factories that would take the scrap metal and melt it to build construction materials and even tables. As you can imagine, all this radioactive metal went directly to the factories. It’s estimated that 20,000 tons of radioactive metal was processed and transported throughout the country and some of it even exported to the US.
How was it detected?
All this happened within one week after Vicente and Ricardo detonated the cobalt-60 bomb and, for the next month, the radioactive materials would be taken all over the country without anybody knowing a thing. It all came to light on January 16, 1984, when one of the transporting trucks of the smelter companies was delivering stock in New Mexico. In a stroke of luck, the driver got lost and, in an attempt to go back to his route, he passed near the Los Alamos National Security Lab, the laboratory where the Manhattan Project (atom bombs) was developed.
The laboratory had radioactivity sensors that would alert authorities, so that no radioactive material would leave the laboratory without authorization and proper handling. So, when the truck passed through, the sensors immediately took pictures of the gates, concerning the authorities about a possible nuclear explosion. After a lot of research, the team finally managed to find the driver in a motel with the truck parked outside. When he went out the next morning, he found a whole squad wearing special suits analyzing his truck.
Workers without protection looking for radioactive pellets
The authorities intervene
They discovered that the truck was radiating about 1,000 rems. Let’s put this in perspective: x-ray machines radiate 0.2 rems; an x-ray technician can only be exposed up to 50 rems in one year; an exposure of 300 to 400 rems can be fatal on 50% of the cases… this truck was radiating a thousand and had been doing so for months.
After an interrogation, the laboratory authorities decided to reach the CNSNS, the government agency in charge of nuclear security. Together, they tracked down the origin of the issue and determined they had two main missions: finding the pick-up truck and recovering the contaminated metals that had spread all across Mexico and the US border. The US government did their part, well, for their own benefit, recovering and sending back to Mexico 90% of the 1,000 tons of contaminated materials. Mexico didn’t do so great.
A flawed and corrupt process
Once the pick-up truck was found, they decided to take it out of the neighborhood it had radiated for the past weeks. They ended up taking it to the biggest public park in Juarez, securing it to a fence (yeah, I can hear your collective face palm from here). Not only that, of the remaining 19,000 tons of radioactive material, they only managed to recover 5,000 tons. They also put together a team of 180 workers to clean the streets and remove the small pellets the engine head had spread all over the city. To do so, they gave them, and I’m not kidding, regular brooms and no protection whatsoever.
We could go into every detail of how stupidly the situation was handled, but we would be here forever. We can just say that most of the material had already been used in building sites all over the country, not to mention that many of the radiated areas of Juarez were eventually populated without caring that even today it’s possible that radiation levels are still dangerous.
The Datsun pick-up that transported the engine head of cobalt-60
Exposure to cobalt-60 can have different consequences in people. In a short term period, it can cause burns, vomit, and diarrhea, which was the case of Vicente, who was later on nicknamed “Vicente the Bionic Man” because nothing serious happened to him. Medium-term exposure can cause a low blood cell count and temporary sterility. Long-term exposure, which is pretty much most of the cases in Juarez, can cause permanent spine damage, leukemia, all types of cancer (but mainly bone), and genetic disorders. As a matter of fact, in the years following the accident, there was a rise in the number babies born with deformities, hydrocephalus, skin infections, harelip, and even stillborn cases, not to mention an increase in cancer patients.
So, Chernobyl might be considered the worst nuclear accident in history due to the damage it caused, but the Cobalt-60 accident of Ciudad Juarez is by far bigger, precisely because it’s impossible to really know and determine the number of victims, the real reach it had, and how it’s still affecting. Definitely, the worst nuclear incident in the history of the American continent and probably the most poorly managed one in history.
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