by STEVE WEINTZ
Valentin Escamilla Ortiz had one of those on-the-job horrors. He was driving a long haul, carrying an old radiation therapy machine from the general hospital in Tijuana to the Storage Center for Low Level Radioactive Waste in Maquixco, near Mexico City.
In the early morning of Dec. 2, 2013, after Ortiz pulled over across the street from a Pemex gas station to get some sleep, some guys apparently took a shine to his truck—a white 2007 Volkswagen cargo vehicle with a lift gate and crane.
The next thing he knew, Ortiz found himself bound and gagged at gunpoint and left in a nearby lot while his truck with its cargo disappeared. After freeing himself he reported the theft to authorities. Due to the nature of the missing cargo his report got results, pronto.
Suddenly, some of the nastiest stuff in the whole nuclear cookbook was off the reservation. It wasn’t the first time. In 1984 a similar sort of device was junked at a scrap yard in Juarez; the consequences included one death, several illnesses, a hundred houses condemned, and hundreds of tons of contaminated rebar and steel furniture destroyed.
The old medical equipment Ortiz was delivering had been designed to carefully shine hard radiation into cancer cells. The shine came from some 60 grams of cobalt, a dark bluish-grey metal akin to iron and nickel and often alloyed with those metals. Dense, dark and magnetic, cobalt hooks up with other elements to form wondrous compounds used for turbine blades, medical implants, cutting heads and drills and industrial catalysts.
Its peculiar English name derives from the medieval European miners who delved like Tolkien’s Dwarves into the earth.
The presence of arsenic in cobalt ore and the useless powder produced by ordinary smelting techniques led them to tag the dark metal kobold, meaning “goblin,” and thus “cobalt.”
Cobalt’s effects have long been prized. Cobalt salts and other compounds provided the deep rich blues, the cobalt blues of ancient glass and ceramics, from Egyptian glass to Chinese porcelain. But the goblin metal becomes a fearsome fire-beast when its most abundant isotope, Cobalt-59, is transmuted into Cobalt-60.
Co-60 pumps out high-energy gamma rays at high intensity. Such a bright, hard radiation is desired when precise power must be focused on tumors or when foods are irradiated for preservation. Nowadays in many food-processing facilities, conveyor belts move spices, fruit, poultry and other foods past shielded Co-60 radiation sources. Their shine acts much like the heat of pasteurization.
With a half-life of 5.3 years, Co-60 sources can run a long time before replacement. Generally, three to four half-lives must pass before low-level radioactive waste can be disposed of. The Co-60 in the machine Valentin Ortiz was transporting will be deadly for a while. And this prolonged potency, from a fairly common metal with a creepy name, is what gives cobalt its modern luster of terror.
End the war, end the world
Co-60 is produced by nuclear reactions, either controlled ones inside reactors and accelerators or uncontrolled ones like nuclear explosions. Medical-grade metal is carefully zapped and encapsulated to produce the Co-60 sources like the one stolen in Mexico.
Some production of Co-60 occurs simply as a result of running nuclear reactors. The nuclear reaction going on transmutes some of the iron in the steel used in the reactor itself into cobalt. This “byproduct” of reactor operations might have been what Gen. Douglas MacArthur had in mind for what could have been the strangest, creepiest action of the Korean War.
In late 1950, after the disastrous rout suffered by U.N. forces at the hands of the invading People’s Liberation Army, MacArthur not only requested atomic bombs but proposed creating a kind of radiological minefield along the Yalu River separating China from Korea. Tons of Co-60, a “byproduct” the U.S. “had in abundance,” according to one breathless news report, would be scattered along a five-mile-wide belt running the length of the border to seal it off for good.
Five miles doesn’t seem like much, but an Olympic runner would come down with radiation sickness well before reaching the halfway point on foot. Had MacArthur been allowed to spread his cobalt, it would have taken until the late 1970s, long after he faded away, for all that goblin metal to change into stable nickel.
In 1950 Leo Szilard, one of the Manhattan Project luminaries, speculated about a “dirty” bomb as a way to point out the real possibility of Doomsday. If a nuclear weapon were clad with an outer sheath of ordinary cobalt metal, then the tremendous neutron flux of the nuclear explosion would instantly turn it all into Co-60.
The resulting fallout would be radioactive enough to drive survivors into bomb shelters, and Co-60’s lingering gamma flux would ensure that their stay there would be too long to matter.
The “cobalt bomb,” the ultimate death-gasm, became a symbol of annihilation in popular culture. The “Doomsday Machine” in Dr. Strangelove is a cluster of dozens of multi-megaton cobalt bombs rigged to explode automatically if the Soviet Union were attacked. The creepiest thing in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, even more than the skinless mutant New Yorkers, is the giant cobalt bomb they worship and which (literally) ends the show.
As far as we know, no one’s actually built a cobalt bomb, although the Doomsday Machine may have a frightening reflection in the real world. A “dirty bomb” may yet be part of our futures, but for now, at least, the wayward cargo of Valentin Ortiz will not be part of it. Following a concerted effort by Mexican authorities these goblins were corralled.