Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists November/December 2002
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists November/December 2002


Beryllium: Giving Kazakhstan the business

U.S. plans to partner with the former Soviet republic are already making some people sick

By Glenn Bell

On July 1, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced that the Energy Department would team up with the Republic of Kazakhstan and two private American companies—Brush Wellman and RWE NUKEM—to produce beryllium-copper alloys for commercial use. The joint venture, to be based at a former Soviet nuclear-weapons facility near the Chinese border in northeast Kazakhstan, is expected to create some 150 jobs over an 8 to 10 year period and make more than $10 million in profit per year.

The Energy Department's decision to participate in a project that will expose Kazakh workers to beryllium—workers who have far fewer safety protections than their counterparts in the United States—is deplorable.

Exposing anyone to the risk of beryllium disease is a blatant disregard of human rights. Neither Russian nor American workers should be expendable, whether the goal is a nation's security or private profit.

Beryllium is an extremely strong but lightweight metal that has been widely used since the 1940s, especially in the aerospace and defense industries. Its unique properties make it a perfect reflector material for pits in thermonuclear warheads and as heat shields on reentry vehicles. Today, beryllium alloys are used in several non-military products, including golf clubs, bicycle frames, and computer parts. But it is highly toxic, and has caused the deaths of perhaps thousands of workers across the globe. In recognition of the dangers posed by the metal, Congress—with the backing of then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson—voted in 2000 to compensate nuclear weapons workers who were made sick by working with beryllium (see "A Debt Long Overdue," July/August 2001 Bulletin).

Studies have shown that as many as 15 percent of those exposed to beryllium experience an immune system response to the presence of beryllium particles in the lungs. Beryllium sensitivity often leads to chronic beryllium disease, or CBD, a debilitating disease that occurs when the body's immune system attempts to break down beryllium particles. The resulting scarring, called granulomas, causes the lungs to stiffen, creating difficulty in breathing and a reduction in the transfer of oxygen to the blood stream. Anyone exposed has about a one-in-six chance of contracting CBD, which takes from a few months to 40 years to develop.

The first recorded cases of beryllium disease occurred in Germany in the mid-1930s. U.S. Atomic Energy Commission documents from 1949 cite numerous deaths from beryllium-related illnesses at contractor facilities. At about the same time, the fluorescent lamp industry stopped using beryllium because of mounting illnesses and deaths among workers, as well as the public's growing awareness of the metal's dangers.

CBD is widespread in the former Soviet Union. At the Ulbinsky metallurgical plant in Kazakhstan, workers are known to have contaminated family members with beryllium dust, which they unwittingly carried home in clothing. Beryllium dust was found on the tram used by workers, on pillows, even in children's hair and mothers' milk.

After visiting affected areas in the region, Lee Newman, a Denver-based pulmonologist, told the Rocky Mountain News (August 2000), "They've got close to 800 workers with this disease at that one plant, and they've carried it out to their community."

Workers at the Ulbinsky plant were exposed to 100 times accepted U.S. limits. As a result, there are increased levels of every known ailment associated with the metal, including lung cancer. Around 4 percent of the surrounding population has been sensitized to beryllium.

In 1990, an explosion at the Ulbinsky factory created a cloud of beryllium dust that traveled well beyond city limits. It is estimated that more than 120,000 people were exposed to the toxin's dust and fumes.

Availability of prednisone and oxygen, the major treatments, is very limited in Russia and the other former Soviet republics. But the need for treatment is urgent, because the younger the afflicted person is, the more aggressive the treatment must be. In Kazakhstan, dozens of children have contracted the disease.

Further complicating matters, in October 1995, U.S. News and World Report reported the attempted hijacking of 4.4 tons of radioactive beryllium by the Russian mafia. This deadly stash, which was discovered in a bank vault in Vilnius, Lithuania, was reportedly intercepted only hours before it was to be made available on the open market.

In The United States, Beryllium Disease has spread from the nuclear weapons complex to private industry, as suppliers attempt to regain sales lost as a result of the end of the Cold War by encouraging the use of beryllium in commercial products. Beryllium-related illnesses are being found in dental labs, where beryllium alloys are used in dental appliances. Many workers have no idea they are handling a potentially deadly substance. Boy Scout rings were made of a beryllium alloy until last January, when Ohio Citizen Action and other groups explained to the association the potential hazards faced by workers. Increasing public awareness of the metal's dangers may be one reason why suppliers want to site production facilities abroad.

In 1949, the U.S. government arbitrarily set the limit for beryllium exposure at 2 micrograms per cubic meter, an infinitesimally small amount. But the Energy Department recently reduced this limit by a factor of 10, to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter. Many specialists, however, argue that there may be no safe limit for beryllium exposure. At a June 2000 meeting in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Lisa Maier of the National Jewish Hospital said that so far no study has been able to prove that there is a limit below which sensitization does not occur.

There are several hundred recorded cases of beryllium sensitization and CBD throughout the Energy Department complex, and the numbers are growing. Because the link between exposure and disease can be proven beyond any reasonable doubt, CBD was the first illness to be covered under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act, passed in 2000, which provides compensation and medical benefits to sick nuclear weapons workers.

Given the substantial number of beryllium-related illnesses in the United States, it is inappropriate for U.S. authorities to support expanding the metal's production abroad, where health and safety regulations are sorely inadequate. There is also no guarantee that criminal organizations will not try to exploit these private enterprises.

. . .

Glenn Bell is a machinist at the Y-12 National Nuclear Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and a member of the Beryllium Victims Alliance.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists November/December 2002