Beryllium Fact Sheet

Element Name: Beryllium Symbol: Be
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
Physical Properties:
Gray silver metal, lighter than aluminum but denser and stiffer than steel.
Non-radioactive in its normal state.
Resistant to "rusting" and acids.



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.

Nuclear Weapons

"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 neutrons.2 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 targets. 4 According to one media article, the lab claims that it can perform certain beryllium processing operations which do not fall under EPA Clean Air Act regulations.5 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 emissions.7

Health Hazards:


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 micrograms9 per cubic meter.10


May be harmful to liver and kidneys.

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 safe.13

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 1995.

July 1999


Back to CCNS Documents Index

1 U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History, Chuck Hansen, 1988, p. 34.
2 A primary is also an effective weapon by itself, as the 16 kiloton Nagasaki "atomic" explosion demonstrated, killing more than an estimated 140,000 people from the blast alone. However, thermonuclear weapons can be thousands of times more powerful.
3 1999 LANL Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement Vol. 1, p. 3- 8.
4 Ibid., p. 3-21.
5 CCNS successfully litigated against LANL in 1996, claiming that the lab had failed to comply with Clean Air Act requirements for its radionuclide air emissions. At that time, LANL was forced to admit that 31 of its 33 major stacks emitting airborne radionuclides were in non-compliance. As a result, LANL had to submit to independent technical reviews of its radioactive air emissions monitoring program. The results of the first audit were released in May 1998. That audit found that LANL was in noncompliance for all of 1996, in contradiction to claims that the lab had made in court and to the public that it had achieved full compliance by June 1996. With LANL's dubious history in radioactive air emissions, it is questionable that its monitoring of beryllium air emissions can be trusted as well.
6 Memo: "Beryllium Alert", LANL, from Allen J. Tiedman to Master Management, March 4, 1992.
7 1999 LANL Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement Vol. 1, p. 4- 89.
8 EPA, Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water; Technical Factsheet on Beryllium, 1/27/98.
9 There are approximately 453.5 grams in a pound. A microgram is one millionth of a gram.
10 Control of Beryllium Powder at a DOE Facility, LANL, 1/1/1997
11 December 3, 1998 DOE Proposed Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program Rule, 10 CFR Part 850 p. 66941.
12 Ibid., p. 66947.
1313 Ibid., p. 66947.
14 Ibid., p. 66944.