Update: U.S. Helium Program and U.S. Production of Molybdenum-99

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Publication date: 
21 November 2012

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.