Beryllium Machining Facility

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Last Updated: September 1, 2003
Other Name: BMF
Location: Mumbai, Navi, India
Subordinate To: Department of Atomic Energy
Size: 3 facilities
Facility Status: Operational

The Vashi Complex in Navi Mumbai is home to BARC's Beryllium plant, machining facility, and processing facility. These facilities are used for the production of beryllium blocks and for machining beryllium into desired components for use in India's nuclear and space programs. Beryllium is used for both industrial and military purposes. Commercially, beryllium is used as a metal and alloy in nuclear power reactors, aerospace applications, electrical equipment, navigation, optical equipment and as an ingredient in missile fuel. Beryllium makes it possible to design smaller, lighter, and more advanced nuclear weapons. The minimum amount of plutonium or uranium required for a weapon to reach critical mass can be reduced by surrounding the core with a neutron reflector. Beryllium is an ideal neutron reflector and is used as a core liner. The core liner surrounds the spherical plutonium core and in turn is surrounded by high explosives. The plutonium core, beryllium liner and surrounding high explosives constitute a nuclear weapon's primary or trigger, which explodes initiating the thermonuclear reaction in a weapon's secondary component. The beryllium liner reflects neutrons back into the plutonium core while also acting as a tamper initially containing and thereby increasing the force of the explosion. The beryllium also generates neutrons adding to a flux of neutrons at the beginning of a nuclear weapon's detonation initiating critical mass. The use of beryllium as a reflector in a nuclear weapon reduces the amount of plutonium needed by about 73 percent. Beryllium was used in India's 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion. The neutron initiator used to trigger the explosion used polonium-beryllium.

Before India had an indigenous source of beryllium, it was dependent on imports from abroad. As early as 1984, a West German firm exported 95kg of US-origin beryllium metal with a purity of 98-99 percent purity to India without the consent of the United States. India's Bhabha Atomic Research Centre was the recipient of this shipment. The following year, Western intelligence sources claimed that India was increasing its efforts to develop nuclear and thermonuclear weapons. Imports of beryllium stopped once BARC developed its domestic capability to produce vacuum hot-pressed beryllium metal. "Beryllium is hard to forge and cast, and hot-pressing creates higher quality parts." In 1994 India's National Research and Development Corporation (NRDC) awarded BARC's Beryllium Machining Facility in Mumbai $800 million for the "development of beryllium components for strategic application." By 1998, BARC's facilities began fulfilling orders for beryllium exports. That year, the Beryllium Machining Facility at Vashi received a $0.2 million order from a US company for the manufacture of beryllium shaft assemblies.

The production and machining of beryllium has also raised health concerns for workers at the Vashi Complex. Overexposure to beryllium can cause lung and bone cancer in humans. Authorities in India have conducted air and soil tests around the Beryllium Processing Facility to assess the concentration of beryllium in the surrounding environment. BARC claims the Processing Facility produces beryllium metal for x-ray tube windows and a copper-beryllium alloy used in the manufacture of non-sparking tools. The results of the test show that effective control measures have been put in place to protect workers and the environment surrounding the Beryllium Processing Facility.

Sources:
[1] David Albright and Mark Hibbs, "India's Silent Bomb," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 1992, www.bullatomsci.org.
[2] D.D. Thorat, "Beryllium concentrations in ambient air and its source identification," EnvironmentalExpert.com, 2001.
[3] Mark Hibbs and Michael.Knapik, "Degussa says it exported U.S. beryllium to India without U.S. authorization," Nuclear Fuel, Vol. 14, No. 3, 6 February 1989, pp. 1-2.
[4] Michael Knapik and Mark Hibbs, "German firm's beryllium exports to India may have violated U.S. law," Nuclear Fuel, Vol. 14, 30 January 1989, pp. 1-2.
[5] O.P. Sabherwal, "Growing exports of N-products," Tribune India, 18 July 1998, www.tribuneindia.com.

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