Law enforcement officials in the city of Vijayawada, India have a mystery on their hands – hands hopefully covered in lead gloves. According to local news reports, police discovered a mysterious box which was suspected of containing unknown radioactive materials. The box was found to be emitting radiation, prompting police to confiscate it so that it may be properly investigated and disposed of.
It is unknown where the box came from. The individuals from whom the box was confiscated stated they purchased it for 500,000 Indian Rupees (around $7,000 USD) and believed the box contained uranium, although some officials suspect it’s more likely the substance inside is iridium. Certain isotopes of iridium are highly radioactive and exposure to them can pose serious health problems.
Videos posted to Indian news blogs show plainclothes police officers investigating the box with bare hands, revealing a strange-looking package inside. Footage from the scene shows a number of individuals in street clothes tearing away at the package willy-nilly with a knife.
While there is little information to go on in this case, it does highlight the growing concern over radioactive materials. There have been numerous examples of highly radioactive materials falling into civilian hands either by accident or theft. One of the worst of these, Brazil’s Goiânia Accident, happened after urban explorers discovered a strange blue glow coming from a piece of machinery in an abandoned hospital. They brought the glowing core of the machine home and cracked it open, allowing children to play with the material inside.
Of course, that material turned out to be radioactive caesium chloride, and the exposure soon resulted in the deaths of four people including a 6-year-old girl. 249 more people were hospitalized, several homes had to be demolished, and large amounts of topsoil had to be removed and disposed of safely.
Today, the International Atomic Energy Agency calls the Goiânia Incident “one of the world’s worst radiological incidents.” Could the city of Vijayawada be next? And seriously: why were police hacking away at mysterious packages found inside radioactive boxes? While no further details have come out in this case, it highlights just how insecure many sources of radioactive materials have become around the world. How long until some of them end up in the hands of terrorists?