The Energy Department’s failure to recognize an impending supply squeeze for helium-3—a nonradioactive gas produced in the agency’s nuclear weapons complex—has created a national crisis requiring White House intervention and threatening key U.S. nuclear and homeland security programs, a wide range of medical and scientific research activities and development of U.S. oil and natural gas resources, according to testimony before a House subcommittee.

The testimony at the House Science and Technology Committee’s investigations and oversight subcommittee revealed that DOE and other federal officials only fully grasped the situation in 2008. Fast-dwindling helium-3 supplies forced the government last year to begin rationing the gas, which has unique neutron detection and refrigerant capabilities that cannot be provided by other substances in some research and industrial applications.

And in a growing snowball of real-world impacts, the sudden helium shortage already has:

  • Disrupted international nonproliferation efforts led by the International Atomic Energy Agency that use helium-based devices to track and safeguard sensitive nuclear materials;
  • Slowed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and DOE programs to deploy radiation detection machines at airports, seaports and border crossings;
  • Delayed a huge swath of cutting-edge scientific research, ranging from superconductivity to nanotechnology to quantum computing;
  • Curtailed operations at some neutron-scattering facilities overseas, although similar DOE facilities such as the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge, Tenn., have sufficient helium for planned operations through fiscal year 2014;
  • Jeopardized progress on new lung imaging techniques that promise better treatment methods for respiratory disease; and
  • Forced oil well services companies to scramble for helium-3 devices that are critical to assessing and developing underground oil and gas reservoirs, including the nation’s fast-growing shale gas fields.

Officials from all those industrial and research sectors, as well as a General Electric official in charge of that company’s radiation detector production unit, said they only learned of the helium-3 shortage last year and now are scrambling to develop alternative technologies and, where possible, recycling methods for helium-3.

At the same time, DHS and DOE officials said an interagency group formed by the White House National Security Council is trying to stretch out DOE’s shrinking supply of about 50,000 liters of helium by tightening allocations to all sectors and ramping up federal research and development of alternative technologies.

The government officials and Thomas Anderson, product line leader of GE Energy’s radiation measurement unit, said alternatives could be developed relatively soon for some applications, most notably for homeland security radiation detectors, which account for most of the rising demand for helium-3. But they said helium-3 would be harder to replace in other applications, particularly oil and gas development, which requires the high sensitivity and reliability of helium-based devices in often rugged underground conditions in deep wells.

"It is likely that without helium-3, exploration for new reserves, development drilling of existing fields, and logging of both new and existing wells will be severely curtailed until an alternative technology is developed," Anderson said in written testimony.

The most promising new source of helium-3, the witnesses said, is found at commercial nuclear plants that use the Canadian deuterium-uranium, or CANDU, reactors. A byproduct of those reactors is tritium, a radioactive gas that produces the helium-3 isotope as it naturally decays in radioactivity. The officials said a substantial reserve of tritium is at power reactors operated by Ontario Power Generation at its Darlington plant, and that the U.S. government already is working with the Canadian government to determine the feasibility of extracting helium-3 from that reserve.

DOE has a central role in the helium-3 crisis because it is the producer and manager of the U.S. government’s supply of tritium, which is needed for nuclear warheads. The gas, which is included in warheads to boost their explosive power, decays in radioactivity relatively quickly, with a half-life of 12.3 years. Thus, it must be replaced in warheads regularly to maintain its potency.

DOE operated dedicated tritium production reactors until the late 1980s, when the aging facilities were shut down for safety reasons. Rather than build expensive new reactors for a rapidly shrinking nuclear arsenal, DOE contracted with the Tennessee Valley Authority to produce tritium in its Watts Bar reactor, with the tritium then extracted from irradiated fuel rods at DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

The sole domestic source of helium-3 is from aging tritium reservoirs removed from U.S. warheads. And because tritium is a weapons-usable nuclear material subject to tight international controls, the only other commercial source of helium-3 is the tritium stockpile developed by Russia for its nuclear weapons arsenal.

William Brinkman, director of DOE’s Office of Science, told the subcommittee department officials first began recognizing the helium-3 problem in 2006 when they were briefed by DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office about its plan for a major roll-out of radiation detectors nationwide to address terrorist threats. Brinkman said DOE officials recognized the radiation detectors would push up demand for helium-3, but that the scope of the shortage was not seen until an August 2008 workshop attended by all interested federal agencies, industrial sectors and research institutions.

The workshop determined that U.S. demand was approaching 70,000 liters annually—more than DOE’s total reserve of about 50,000 liters. At about the same time, U.S. officials learned that Russia was stopping its helium-3 exports and keeping all of the gas for its own use. That eliminated the 25,000 liters of Russian helium-3 that had been entering the U.S. market each year.

DOE and DHS quickly decided not to allocate any more gas to domestic radiation detectors—the largest source of new demand—and DOE began investigating the Canadian tritium supplies and launched research on new helium-3 production methods, such as distillation from natural gas or new reactor-based irradiation.

The White House National Security Council formed an interagency group on the matter in July 2009 and determined projected U.S. demand in 2010 was 76,330 liters. At the same time, it found existing DOE supply was at 47,600 liters, with annual production estimated at 8,000 liters a year. The interagency task force then moved to sharply reduce demand through a rationing program, resulting in a greatly reduced 2010 demand projection of 14,557 liters, Brinkman said.

The helium-3 shortage did not become publicly known until last year, when the problem emerged during an investigation by the House Science and Technology Committee’s investigations subcommittee into technical issues delaying DHS’ radiation detectors. The subcommittee is now investigating how DOE failed to recognize the helium-3 problem earlier.

"The finite, and declining, nature of the helium-3 stockpiles should have been readily apparent to the Department of Energy, which manages and markets the nation’s helium-3 supply…," Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-N.C.) told Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a March 3 letter seeking DOE documents on the issue. "However, the department took no steps to push for controls on the amount of helium-3 going into the marketplace until 2009. The failure to identify this situation in a more timely fashion, as well as an apparent failure to alert users who rely on helium-3 that a shortage was imminent, has created a national crisis…."

—George Lobsenz is editor of Energy Daily, a sister publication.