Thieves who burglarized a Sorrento Valley firm early Wednesday morning got away with more "hot" property than they planned when they took a safe containing uranium and plutonium.
Officials at Science Applications International Corp., a La Jolla firm whose RADeCO division on Roselle Street in Sorrento Valley makes radiation monitoring equipment, said the stolen safe contained discs coated with eight radioactive substances. The discs are inside protective containers.
However, both a company spokesman and a county health authority said the material posed only a minor threat to the thief or thieves and no real threat to public safety.
"The sources are of low radioactivity levels," said Dennis Heipt, the company's senior vice president of administration. "If the sources were handled improperly, they could cause a person to receive a small radioactive exposure, but are definitely not lethal."
Gary Stephany, San Diego County's chief of environmental health protection, confirmed there was no risk to the public.
"A person would have to grind it up and ingest it to suffer any serious effects," he said. "I guess if they held it in their hand long enough, it might burn them.
Between the initial reporting of the burglary at 7 a.m. and the firm's announcement at noon that the radioactive material was not dangerous, RADeCO was besieged by inquiries from local emergency agencies and the media.
"This thing started off this morning like it was World War III," Heipt said. "What's turned out is that what was taken is nothing you couldn't buy through a catalog."
Heipt said the 160-pound safe, which bears a sign warning of its radioactive contents, was a minor part of the $15,000 worth of property taken during the night when no employees were working. Police said burglars broke windows to get into the plant and also stole several typewriters and computers.
San Diego police spokesman Richard Carlson said detectives doubt the burglars set out to steal the radioactive discs. "It probably was dark when they went in there and they didn't see the caution thing," Carlson said. "They've probably discarded (the safe) by now."
The discs, used to calibrate radiation-monitoring equipment, contain sources of eight radioactive elements, including trace amounts of such dangerous isotopes as plutonium-239 and strontium-90. However, the only element emitting enough radioactivity to pose any health hazard is cesium-137, according to John Glancy, manager of the firm's technology development group.