GAO Faults DOE in Helium-3 Shortage

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Publication date: 
11 July 2011

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.”