Element Name: Beryllium Symbol:
Atomic Number: 4 (i.e., there are 4 protons)
Atomic Weight: 9 (i.e., there are 5 neutrons)
Boiling Point: 1,883C; 3,331F
Melting Point: 3,516C; 6,361F
Type: Alkaline Earth Metal
Density (weight): 1.8477 grams/cubic centimeter
Abundance in Earth's Crust: 0.001 of total mass
¥ Gray silver metal,
lighter than aluminum but denser and stiffer than steel.
¥ Non-radioactive in its
¥ Resistant to "rusting"
¥ The greatest industrial
use of beryllium is as a metal and alloy in nuclear power
reactors, aerospace applications, electrical equipment,
navigation and optical equipment and in missile fuel.
¥ "Beryllium is now used as
the reflector material (or 'pit liner') in most contemporary
American nuclear weapons and thermonuclear
'primaries'."1 The pit liner, sometimes also
referred to as the "skull", surrounds the spherical
plutonium pit and is in turn surrounded by high explosives.
All three of these components together make up a modern
nuclear weapon's "primary", or trigger, which initiates the
thermonuclear reaction in a weapon's secondary components.
The beryllium liner effectively acts as 1) a reflector which
directs neutrons back into the plutonium pit; 2) a tamper
which initially contains and thereby helps to increase the
force of the explosion; and 3) a generator of additional
A flux of neutrons at the
beginning of a nuclear weapon's detonation initiates
critical mass, which subsequently leads to the weapon's
designed destructive yield.
¥ Because of the above
properties, beryllium manufacturing operations are
inextricably intertwined with plutonium pit manufacturing
operations. Both manufacturing operations have now been
transferred to Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) from
the notorious Rocky Flats Plant near Denver. Rocky Flats
never resumed plutonium pit production following a 1989 FBI
raid investigating environmental crimes.
¥ LANL states that it now
has the capability to fabricate beryllium components for
roughly 50 plutonium pits annually along with associated
beryllium targets. 3
LANL also states that with its
long desired expansion of nuclear weapons operations,
beryllium components could be manufactured for as many as 80
pits and a slight increase in the number of beryllium
According to one media article,
the lab claims that it can perform certain beryllium
processing operations which do not fall under EPA Clean Air
LANL has also had a history of
unpermitted beryllium sources.6
¥ LANL ceased monitoring of
beryllium in ambient air in December 1995. In the same
year, the State of New Mexico rescinded its regulation
standard for beryllium ambient air
¥ Acute exposure to high
concentrations of beryllium can cause severe bronchitis or
pneumonia. This can lead to permanent lung scarring, making
breathing very difficult.
¥ There is evidence cited
by the EPA that beryllium may cause cancer when an
individual is regularly exposed during his/her lifetime
above the EPA defined exposure limits.8 In addition, the New
Jersey Department of Health states that beryllium can cause
lung and bone cancer in humans and has definitely been shown
to cause these cancers in laboratory animals.
¥ Chronic exposure to
smaller amounts of beryllium can cause Chronic Beryllium
Disease, commonly called berylliosis. This is a severe
reaction caused by the body's own immune system. Up to 6%
of the population can experience such a reaction. The
disease frequently occurs 15 to 20 years after exposure
begins. Symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath,
weight loss and poor appetite. These symptoms are long
lasting and grow progressively worse. Berylliosis may also
occur after a single exposure of more than 0.10
¥ May be harmful to liver
¥ Appears to be less toxic
when ingested rather than inhaled. EPA has established the
maximum ingestible level at 4 micrograms per liter.
Dermal and Eye contact
¥ Itching, swelling, and
redness of exposed area.
¥ If small particles of
beryllium enter the skin, sores can develop that do not heal
until the beryllium has been washed out. This is likely to
kill exposed tissues.
Beryllium Releases and Standards
¥ Beryllium metal has been
released into the environment from various industries, most
notably from electricity generating plants that burn coal
containing natural beryllium.
¥ DOE nuclear weapons
facilities have released beryllium into the environment.
LANL high explosives testing sites show relatively high
concentrations of beryllium in the soil, but according to
DOE fall within acceptable levels.
¥ A 2 micrograms per cubic
meter of air over an 8-hour time weighted average standard
is used by DOE for worker health. This standard was
established in 1949 by the Atomic Energy
Commission.11 This outdated standard is not
protective enough, according to NYU Professor Emeritus of
Environmental Medicine Dr. Merill Eisenbud. He states that
further research needs to be done and until that time the
standard should be more conservative.12 DOE has set a new
short-term exposure limit at 10 micrograms per cubic meter
of air and an 8-hour time weighted average at 0.5 micrograms
per cubic meter of air. The DOE admits that it has no
evidence to support even these exposure limits as
¥ The current EPA community
permissible exposure limit for public health is 0.01
micrograms per cubic meter of ambient air in a 24-hour time
period.14 As already stated, LANL ceased
monitoring ambient air for beryllium emissions in
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