December 17, 2005
China has sent four people to jail for stealing dangerous radioactive waste from a power plant in the southwestern province of Sichuan.
Beijing: China has sentenced four people to jail for stealing dozens of chunks of lead-encased radioactive waste, not knowing the materials were dangerous, a court official said. An inspector at the No. 502 Power Plant in the southwestern province of Sichuan discovered 63 pieces of Cobalt-60 and 14 empty lead casings missing in late February, the semi-official China News Service said in a report seen by Reuters on Sunday. Police zeroed in on the thieves in just seven hours after learning they had sold the lead casings to a metal processor, it said. Cobalt-60 produces gamma rays that increase the chances of cancer in those exposed to it, but it can also be used as a medical tracer and to treat various types of cancer and irradiate food. As one of several radioactive materials less closely guarded than uranium or plutonium, experts say it could be used in a so-called “dirty bomb” – a conventional explosive combined with a radioactive material that could spread the harmful material over a wide area. The four men – Tang Sen, Xie Xiaorong, Dong Pingfang and Wang Yunshu – were given sentences ranging from six months to 11 years in prison. Tang and Xie were temporarily stripped of their political rights, the news service said. An official at the Panzhihua city court which sentenced the four men yesterday said the sentences were “preliminary” and that the men had the right to appeal. The Henan Fazhibao newspaper reported that the thieves sneaked into the power plant to steal wood and walked into an unlocked storage facility where they mistook the lead-encased radioactive pieces for waste iron. They sold the empty casings for six yuan ($0.73) per kg and buried the lead-encased cobalt-60 pieces in a river bank and in their backyards, it said. In the past, one piece of cobalt-60 was “lost” in a northern Chinese city, causing several deaths and illnesses, the newspaper said, without giving details. It said if all 63 of the chunks were thrown into a river or melted down, the devastation could be as bad as a nuclear bomb.