LANL physicist died in 1988 from exposure to beryllium

February 24, 2018

Chronic beryllium disease, which can be caused by exposure to the the element beryllium, was the cause of death in 1988 of pioneer physicist Herbert Lawrence Anderson, who helped develop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, according to a New York Times obituary from that year.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory’s handling of its beryllium supply is faulted in a just-released U.S. Energy Department report from the Office of the Inspector General.

According to the obituary, Anderson, 74, died at his Santa Fe home July 16, 1988, of berylliosis “and had contracted the lung disease in early nuclear experiments with radon and beryllium.”

With other scientists, “he participated in the first man-made, self-sustained nuclear chain reaction in an experiment conducted at a converted indoor squash court at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field.”

In 1944, he transferred to Los Alamos “and participated in research that resulted in the explosion of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo in 1945,” The Times said.

He was an expert on atom smashers and, in later years, as his health started to fail, he continued his work on subatomic particle experiments.

The metal beryllium is highly toxic, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s website, but its properties — such as its low density, high strength, high melting point and thermal conductivity — make it an essential material in several high-tech industries, such as aerospace, telecommunications, information technology, defense, medicine and nuclear industries.