.News Update 2/6/09

Beryllium Disclosure Raises More Questions than Answers

February 6, 2009

On January 28, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) announced that nearly 2,000 current and former employees and visitors might have been exposed to beryllium at a Technical Area 41 laboratory located in Los Alamos Canyon. The beryllium was detected in November, but the workers and visitors were just informed.

Technical Area 41 is described by LANL as a site where "engineering design and development of nuclear components, including fabrication and evaluation of test materials for weapons" is conducted.

Beryllium is an extremely light, yet strong, non-radioactive metal and a key component of nuclear weapons. Beryllium is formed through machining and manufacturing operations, thus creating fine particles, dust and fumes that are easily inhaled. Some people are sensitive to beryllium exposure. When exposed, the immune system attacks the beryllium particles and forms clumps of white blood cells in the lungs. If a person is extremely sensitive to beryllium, he or she may contract chronic beryllium disease, which causes a cough and impairs lung function.

The beryllium was found under a package in one of the storage vaults located within a 300-foot long tunnel. Kevin Roark, a LANL spokesman, said, "The package appeared to have damage or degradation of the packing materials, which prompted us to test the area for additional contamination." LANL found high levels of beryllium in the air and that the package was not the contaminant source. LANL has not been able to determine the contamination source.

The last time the tunnel was tested was in 2001. At that time Technical Area 41 consisted of the tunnel and a building. Outside the building were three strands of razor wire along the fence, with signs indicating that vehicles needed to be turned off immediately after parking near the building. In 2002, the building was demolished, piece-by-piece. During that summer, CCNS and others observed Mexican nationals removing metal from the building and stacking it in a large pile. We were told that the metal was being shipped to Mexico.

CCNS reached a LANL Communications Officer to find out whether beryllium was found in the building and if the contractors and subcontractors on the demolition crew were also notified about possible exposure. We did not receive a reply by press time.

Ingrid Drake, an investigator with the Project On Government Oversight in Washington DC, said that an anonymous source reported that 59 occurrences of beryllium exposure have occurred over the last 18 years at LANL. She added, "Evidence is mounting throughout the weapons complex that the Labs are not taking the threat of beryllium contamination seriously enough. It's time for the Inspector General or the Government Accountability Office to assess how effectively DOE and NNSA have been monitoring Labs' compliance, holding them accountable, and initiating new rulemaking to strengthen protections for workers."

Persons concerned they may have worked in or visited this area can call 505-665-7233 for further information and testing.

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