The Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigated the Department of Energy’s (DOE) slow response to the severe shortage of a critical isotope, helium-3, in 2008. GAO found that unclear stewardship responsibilities and poor coordination between two DOE offices caused stockpiles of helium-3 to be severely depleted before any shortage was detected.
Background GAO was asked to conduct this review by Representatives Brad Miller (D-NC) and Donna Edwards (D-MD), both members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. Helium-3 is vital to a number of different fields. According to the report:
“Helium-3 gas is a critical component of radiation detection equipment, including radiation detection portal monitors that are used to screen cargo and vehicles at ports and border crossings around the world to prevent nuclear material from being smuggled into the United States…. In addition, helium-3 is used in various industrial applications, such as oil and gas exploration and road construction, and in research applications, including physics research requiring ultra-low temperatures that can only be achieved using helium-3.”
The issue was first brought to light in June 2008, when a firm contracted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to provide radiation detectors told DHS that they could not procure sufficient quantities of helium-3 to fulfill its contract. Helium-3 sales through public auction by DOE were halted shortly thereafter so that DOE could try to bring supply and demand into balance.
Helium-3 is produced, according to GAO, as a “byproduct of the radioactive decay of tritium, a key component of the nation’s nuclear weapons that is used to enhance their power.” As such, it is collected and maintained by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which then provides the helium-3 to DOE’s Isotope Development and Production for Research and Applications Program (Isotope Program) for sale by public auction.
Conclusions The problem arose, GAO determined:
“because no DOE entity had stewardship responsibility for the overall management of helium-3. As a result of this lack of stewardship responsibility, officials from DOE’s Isotope Program, which sold helium-3, and NNSA, which extracted it from tritium, did not communicate about the helium-3 inventory or its extraction rate. Without stewardship responsibility, key risks to managing helium-3, such as the lack of understanding of the helium-3 inventory and the demand for helium-3, were not identified or mitigated by either entity.”
The report continues:
“Helium-3 inventory and production information was not shared between officials at the Isotope Program and NNSA because, according to NNSA officials, this information was generally treated as classified by NNSA out of concern that the inventory and annual extraction rate could be used to calculate the size of the U.S. tritium stockpile, which is classified. In describing the situation, Isotope Program officials stated that they did not have the requisite “need to know” to gain access to this information, and consequently, did not discuss it. In other words, Isotope Program officials did not believe that they needed complete information on the size of the helium-3 inventory or how much was being added to the inventory each year in order to carry out the program’s mission because helium-3 does not fall within its mission.”
Government Response to Date To address this issue, in July of 2009, the National Security Advisor created an interagency policy committee to develop new protocols for the management of helium-3. The committee created the three priorities by which helium-3 would be distributed. The first of these is “[a]pplications for which there are no alternatives to helium-3, which includes, for example, research that requires ultra-low temperatures that can be achieved only with helium-3.”
The second priority is “[p]rograms for detecting nuclear material at foreign ports and borders,” and the third is “[p]rograms for which substantial costs have already been incurred, such as DOE’s Spallation Neutron Source research facility that conducts physics research.” Based on these priorities, each sector received an annual allocation of helium-3.
Additionally, there are ongoing efforts both to increase supply and reduce demand. Work is underway to find materials that can be used as alternatives to helium-3 in radiation detection equipment. DOE and NNSA are also working to increase supply by investigating new potential sources and studying whether helium-3 can be recovered and recycled from old equipment that has been retired.
Congressional Hearing 2010 In April of 2010, the House Science Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, then chaired by Miller, held a hearing to examine DOE’s failure to respond quickly enough to the helium-3 shortage. At the hearing, William Brinkman, the Director of the DOE Office of Science, testified about DOE’s efforts to reduce demand and increase supply in the ways outlined above. He also said that there are ongoing negotiations with countries like Canada and Argentina that have heavy-water-moderated nuclear reactors to determine the feasibility of recovering helium-3 from permanent storage containers used to store radioactive tritium.
Also testifying at the hearing were Dr. William Halperin of Northwestern University and Dr. Jason Woods of Washington University in St. Louis, both scientific users of helium-3. The scientists both testified that shortages of the important isotope were already beginning to affect research and could set back progress in many fields, from advanced materials and quantum computing to medical imaging.
GAO Recommendations GAO makes four recommendations to the Secretary of Energy “to avoid future shortages associated with managing all isotopes that the Isotope Program sells but whose supply it does not control, including helium-3.” The most important of these is that DOE should clarify where the responsibility lies for stewardship of critical isotopes that the Isotope Program sells but whose supply it does not control.
Following this determination, the GAO recommends that the office with stewardship of these isotopes should:
“develop and implement a communication process that provides complete information to the assigned entity on the production and inventory of isotopes that are produced outside the Isotope Program;
“develop strategic plans that, among other things, systematically assess and document risks to managing the isotopes and supporting activities, such as not having control over the supply of these isotopes, and implement actions needed to mitigate them; and
“develop and implement a method for forecasting the demand of isotopes that is more accurate than the one that is currently used. In this regard, the actions taken should be consistent with the forecasting recommendation from the subcommittee report of the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee.”
Congressional Response 2011 In announcing the GAO report, Miller and Edwards had harsh words for DOE. “The Department of Energy was in charge of managing the supply of Helium-3, and apparently did not think to check how much they had and what the needs were,” said Miller. “No one using Helium-3 knew they needed a ‘plan B’ until they learned with little warning that there wasn’t enough. The Department of Homeland Security was planning to spend billions of dollars developing nuclear security technologies that required Helium-3 and had no clue that the supply was almost gone.”
“Gross mismanagement at the Department of Energy led to a global Helium-3 supply crisis that jeopardized U.S. nuclear security programs, the global oil and gas industry, and billion dollar international scientific projects,” said Edwards. “DOE has a responsibility to anticipate demand for the critical isotopes they produce or distribute to ensure availability when the nation needs them. With so much riding on Helium-3, it is shocking to learn that the Department’s forecast for demand is based simply on a telephone log tracking those who called asking about the availability of Helium-3.”
Also of interest, the House of Representatives is scheduled to consider the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill this afternoon. The committee report contains language expressing concerns about NNSA’s failure to manage the supply of helium-3 and instructing NNSA to:
“provide a report on its efforts to manage the supply of helium-3, including a full accounting of the existing supplies, anticipated production, and the full requirements of all government users supplied by NNSA’s stockpile. The report should explain the criteria currently used for allocating the scarce supply of helium-3 across the various users and identify where, and when, the gaps in meeting the full requirements will fall. Further, the NNSA should provide the Committee with an evaluation of potential options and their associated costs for increasing supplies to fully meet domestic needs, including consideration of increasing recycling of existing helium-3 or improving the efficiency of the helium-3 recovery operations at Savannah River.”