When considering the worst nuclear disasters that happened in the world; Chernobyl inn the Urkraine, Fukushima in Japan, or the SL-1 incident in Idaho rank as some of the worst. But Juarez nearly avoided having a nuclear disaster of its own in the 80s. It was called the Cobalt 60 Incident, or as some people call it: The Mexican Chernobyl.

So what on Earth happened in the first place?

The story first starts in 1977 with a man named, Dr. Abelardo Lemus. He was looking to purchase a radiotherapy machine to treat his cancer patients so he bought one that came equipped with a Cobalt 60 pump for 16,000 dollars from the private hospital Centro Medico de Especialidades. However... he didn't have the proper permits to BUY such a machine.

In case you've never heard of Cobalt 60,

It's very radioactive & must be handled with care. This video from NDTV will show you just how careful one has to be when handling this stuff.

Fast forward to 1983 we know get to what has been called "The Mexican Chernobyl"

After the machine was abandoned, due to a lack of people who can operate the machine with care, the Cobalt 60 machine was sold for scrap on December 6, 1983. The men who sold it for scrap were Vicente Sotelo Alardín, a maintenance worker at the hospital, and his friend Ricardo Hernández. They drilled out the heart of the cobalt bomb, a cylinder containing the radioactive material, loaded up their truck, & drove down to the Yonke Fenix scrapyard in Juarez.

Here's a photo of Yonke Fenix in 2023

Google Maps
Google Maps

While they were driving to the scrapyard, the truck would end up spilling radioactive material ALL OVER the city, without them knowing. The cobalt-60 would be mixed with the rest of the scrap. Over 6,000 TONS would then be distributed all across Mexico & the United States.

Pile of domestic garbage in landfill

When did someone finally notice?

It wasn't until a month later, in January 16th, 1984, that a truck carrying Mexican rebar set off the nuclear detector in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Another truck would be found in El Paso also carrying the contaminated rebar. 10 days later, the junkyard found one of the main sources in a pickup in the Altavista neighborhood in Cuidad Juarez. The truck would end up on the other side of The Rio Grande, across from El Paso.

Kevin Vargas
Kevin Vargas

How bad was this incident?

Compared to the worst nuclear disaster in the United States, the Three Mile Island Incident in 1977, more than 100 times the radiation was spread in Juarez. At least 200 people, 20 houses & 4,000 tons of steel were contaminated, being the worst radioactive material spill in North America at the time, next to the Church Rock, New Mexico spill. The radioactive rebar was recovered & you can see the photos at the Museum of Radiation & Radioactivity.

There are some YouTube videos that covered the topic that go into even more detail from users like Plainly Difficult,

& Today I Found Out

Thankfully nothing like this has happened, thanks to stricter regulations on handling radioactive materials. So let's hope nothing like this doesn't happen again...

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