Science Committee Hearing Spotlights Shortage in Critical Isotope

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Publication date: 
12 May 2010

“It is astonishing that DOE did not see this coming,” said Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC), chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the House Committee on Science and Technology, at last month’s aptly titled hearing,  “Caught by Surprise: Causes and Consequences of the Helium-3 Supply Crisis.”

Severe shortages of helium-3 are impacting the production of radiation detection devices, physics and medical imaging research, and oil and gas exploration.  This shortage has resulted in a tenfold increase in the cost of this isotope, with users reporting that some suppliers are no longer able to fill orders.   This FYI largely focuses on the impacts of this shortage on scientific users.

The Department of Energy is the sole U.S. supplier of this isotope, a by-product from the decay of tritium used to increase the yield of nuclear weapons.  Reductions in the U.S. nuclear stockpile have resulted in a diminished supply of helium-3 at the same time that demand for it has increased in applications such as radiation portal monitors.  It has been estimated that total demand for helium-3 in 2009 was 213,000 liters, with only 45,000 liters available.  Management of the helium-3 program was transferred from the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy to the Office of Science in FY 2009.

William Brinkman, Director of the Office of Science, told the subcommittee “we have reached a critical shortage” in the global supply of helium-3.  He described how White House staff formed an Interagency Policy Committee in mid-2009 to lower demand and increase available supplies of helium-3, and to “optimally allocate” its supply. “The allocation process gives priority to scientific uses dependent on unique physical properties of helium-3 and to maintaining continuity of activities with significant sunk costs. It also provides some supply for non-government sponsored uses, principally oil and gas exploration,” Brinkman told the subcommittee.  Efforts to reduce projected demand in the United States have been successful, dropping from an initial FY 2010 projection of  76,330 liters to 14,557 liters.  Although no new allocations will be made for radiation portal monitors, past allotments of helium-3 will support the program through “early FY 2011.”  Brinkman estimated new neutron detection technologies for portal monitors will require two to three additional years of development.

Scientific users of helium-3 are pursuing alternative strategies.  Brinkman testified that current allocations will support experiments by the U.S. neutron scattering research community through the end of September 2014.   Through the end of this decade, new international facilities will require 120,000 liters of new helium-3.  “The U.S. has insisted that international partners take responsibility for securing new sources of helium-3, that the U.S. can no longer be the major supplier satisfying these needs,” Brinkman told the subcommittee.

Helium-3 is required for ultra-low-temperature coolers used in fields such as nanoscience and quantum computing research.  The full FY 2010 U.S. cryogenics request was approved.  Looking ahead, Brinkman told the subcommittee that “the true impacts to both R&D and operational programs will be better quantified in the upcoming months, as users with small volume requirements place orders for their projects.”

Brinkman also discussed developing alternative sources of helium-3.  In the next three years, reuse and recycling will be encouraged, with efforts to date resulting in a 10 percent overall reduction in demand for new helium-3.  Laboratories and plants have been directed to inventory unused or excess supplies.  The Savannah River National Laboratory is working on a process to extract helium-3 from retired equipment, which may yield as much as 10,000 liters.

DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration are negotiating with countries having heavy-water-moderated reactors such as Canada and Argentina to determine the feasibility of recovering helium-3 from permanent storage containers used to store tritium.  Technical feasibility and cost studies are scheduled to be complete in early FY 2011, which starts on October 1 of this year.  It may be possible to recover 100,000 liters of helium-3 through this method over the course of seven years.

Also being studied is extracting helium-3 from natural gas, and what Brinkman described as “reactor-based irradiations to produce tritium for the primary purpose of subsequent helium-3 harvesting.”  Both of these longer-term measures will “likely involve a substantial increase in the cost” of the isotope.

Finally, NNSA is investigating replacement technologies for neutron detectors that do not use helium-3.

Brinkman’s written testimony described how helium-3 will be allocated in coming years as follows:

“The NSS IPC [National Security Staff Interagency Policy Committee] met in September 2009 and concurred on a strategy that decreases overall demand for helium-3, including conservation and alternative technologies, increases supply through exploring foreign supplies/inventories and recycling, and optimally allocates existing supplies. Furthermore, the IPC agreed to defer all further allocation of helium-3 for portal monitors, beginning in FY 2010, and would not support allocating helium-3 for new initiatives that would result in an expanding helium-3 infrastructure. The IPC stipulated that helium-3 requests should be ranked according to the following priorities:

1. programs requiring the unique physical properties of helium-3 have first priority.

2. programs that secure the threat furthest away from US territory and interests have     second priority.

3. programs for which substantial costs have been incurred will have third priority.

“Adoption of this approach for managing the U.S. helium-3 inventory produces allocations for Fiscal Years 2010 through 2017 that can be met by projected reserves. This is in contrast to the original allocation approach, which would have resulted in large and increasing shortages over the same period of time.”

Also testifying at this hearing was Dr. William Halperin of Northwestern University and Dr. Jason Woods of Washington University in St. Louis.  Halperin, who conducts low-temperature research, told the subcommittee that helium-3 shortages “are already creating major difficulties” in advanced materials, metrology and high-speed computation research.  Halperin said his research supported by the National Science Foundation, as well as that of other scientists, is jeopardized because of supply shortages.  “Many of us are also concerned that without adequate access to helium-three, instrumentation companies may soon be forced out of business.”  Woods testified about the promise of hyperpolarized-gas MRI to develop more effective drugs to treat lung diseases, and described the impact that shortages will have “on future drug development, efficacy monitoring, and in guiding new surgical and minimally-invasive interventions.”

The concluding paragraphs of Chairman Miller’s written opening remarks provide both his positive, and negative, reactions to the current situation.  They were as follows:

“Good crisis management is an inspiring thing to see in the government and I have to say that the current efforts of DNDO [Domestic Nuclear Detection Office], DOE, DOD and other agencies under the orchestration of the National Security Council staff appears to be very well organized. They have set out to do a thorough survey of demand and have attempted to identify all outlying sources of supply. They are identifying alternative gases and locating international opportunities to temporarily expand the supply of Helium-3. All of this is laudatory, and can serve as a nice model for future interagency management of crises, but even better is to avoid a situation requiring crisis management in the first place. I hope that DOE has learned a lesson with Helium-3 that will lead to wiser management of the unique isotopes they control and distribute.
“The final lesson I hope the agencies and the White House learn is that when a Subcommittee asks for your documents, you have to produce them or explain why you cannot. The Subcommittee wrote to both the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security on March 8 requesting materials by March 29. Neither agency responded in a timely fashion. Neither agency has produced all of their materials, nor offered anything approaching a comprehensible explanation of the situation. Allegedly, some small set of documents were originally produced by White House staff and distributed to the agencies, and I have been surprised at the difficulty of getting the White House and the agencies to simply do the reviews that the precedents of legislative-executive relations suggest should properly occur for these documents, which do not appear to rise to the level of an executive privilege claim. I am hopeful that we will break this impasse soon.
“The implications of the situation are that the Subcommittee is not as prepared for this hearing as we should properly be. The agencies have gone through elaborate fictional inter-agency courtesies allowing for duplicative, time-consuming reviews. There is no legal basis for these reviews. This has not only wasted time but is discourteous to the Committee. As a result, it is my intention to leave the hearing record open and, in consultation with my Ranking Member, Dr. [Paul] Broun [R-GA], to include in the record relevant materials that are responsive to my original letter. I will not rule out a second hearing on this subject if the documentary record contradicts testimony we receive today nor would I rule out taking any other steps necessary to compel production of agency records. I hope it won’t come to that, but I had enough of stonewalling and slow rolls by the last Administration to have much patience with it from this Administration.”