U.S. Helium Program:
A report by the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of the Interior highlights the need for changes in the management of the U.S. Helium Program. The 16-page report, “Bureau of Land Management’s Helium Program” was released on November 9.
Liquid helium is critically important to condensed-matter physics and high-energy physics research. It is used in the research programs of more than 60 universities in the U.S. and major user facilities such as the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory. Helium is a byproduct of natural gas production and is used as a coolant in many scientific applications.
Approximately 40 percent of the helium used in the U.S. is provided through sales conducted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Under current law, BLM disposes of its helium supply by selling it to private refiners at prices that do not reflect its fair market value. It is estimated that funding support for this program, with a remaining $44 million debt from helium purchased in the 1960s, will terminate in 2013 with the repayment of this debt to the government. The Inspector General’s report explains: “According to BLM, this would have the effect – absent reauthorization of the fund or other appropriations action – of ending its ability to pay for continuing program operations.”
Three recommendations in this report regarding the determination of a fair market price, a new pricing process, and sales management for the remaining helium in the reserve were accepted by BLM and are in the process of being implemented in 2013 and 2014.
Hearings were held in the House and Senate on the importance of helium and needed changes to current law. Twenty-one senators joined Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) in cosponsoring S. 2374, the Helium Stewardship Act. In commenting on the Inspector General’s report, Bingaman said:
“This report underscores problems with the operation of the Bureau of Land Management’s Helium Program that must be addressed, and quickly, to capture maximum value for the American taxpayer and ensure the viability of our critical helium supply. The bipartisan legislation we have already introduced addresses the program deficiencies raised by the report, and will allow for the continued repayment of the national debt by selling helium at fair market prices. In addition to providing a good return on investment to American taxpayers, the legislation will boost the private helium sector and ensure the continued success of domestic manufacturers that use helium for industrial, scientific and medical purposes. I urge my colleagues in the Senate to take swift action and pass this bill.”
Barrasso offered similar comments:
“The Inspector General report confirms what members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have known for a while -- that BLM is selling helium from the Federal Helium Reserve below market prices. Our bipartisan helium bill would give BLM the tools it needs to sell helium at market prices. This will help ensure taxpayers get a fair return on this resource and that manufacturers of MRIs, semiconductors, and other important technologies, have a stable supply of helium.”
The outlook for this bill is uncertain. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Bingaman, held a hearing on this 15-page bill in May, but has taken no further action. A House bill, H.R. 2090, the Energy Critical Elements Advancement Act, includes helium as one of 29 elements that would be assessed and included in a research program. No action has been taken on this bill. When Congress adjourns next month all bills will die, requiring their reintroduction in the next Congress.
Last week the National Nuclear Security Administration announced a cooperative agreement with a U.S. corporation for the production of the medical isotope molybdenum-99 without the use of highly-enriched uranium. $22.2 million was awarded to NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes, LLC for construction of a facility using a linear accelerator and non-uranium based materials in Beloit, Wisconsin. This will be the first domestic facility for the production of this isotope employed in 50,000 medical procedures in the U.S. every day. The corporation predicts that by the end of 2014 it could provide half of this isotope for U.S. needs. This corporation is one of four U.S. commercial entities NNSA is working with to produce Mo-99 without the use of highly enriched uranium. Further information on this medical isotope and congressional action can be viewed here.