US demands inquiry into isotope management

03 June 2011

US lawmakers have launched an investigation into the Department of Energy's (DOE) management of critical isotopes, following revelations that a serious shortage of helium-3 was exacerbated by communication failures. Helium-3 is vital for radiation detectors used at ports and border crossings to prevent the smuggling of nuclear material.

Members of the House of Representatives' Science, Space and Technology Committee want to ensure that the DOE's Isotope Program - which is charged with managing the production and sale of isotopes, including helium-3 - is better prepared for future demand. Therefore, they have asked the congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO) to initiate a comprehensive investigation.

A shortage of helium-3 has led US politicians to investigate how the supply of vital isotopes are managed

The foundations for the helium-3 supply crisis were laid in 2001, after the attacks on the US, when demand for radiation detectors jumped sharply. The problem was compounded by increased use of helium-3 in research, and demand quickly outpaced production. But this imbalance went undetected until the shortage became critical.

The new investigation comes after the GAO concluded in a 31 May report that the government's slow response to the 2008 helium-3 shortage was the result of no department having overall responsibility for the isotope.

The GAO also found that communication between the Isotope Program and the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration, which extracts and supplies helium-3, was poor. The two departments failed to share information on demand for and production of helium-3. Officials at the Isotope Program - which manages 16 other isotopes, including lithium-6, a key component in battery research - believed that helium-3 was not their responsibility so production and stockpiles were not monitored.

Lack of leadership

This lack of leadership also meant that the Isotope Program failed to accurately forecast helium-3 demand. Demand was only assessed by telephone inquiries from potential customers.

This approach was flawed. In 2008, inquiries for only 1,226 litres of helium-3 were recorded. However, Linde - the company that purchases or purifies nearly all the helium-3 in the US - says that demand was nearly 60,000 litres that year.

The GAO report concludes that 'all isotopes without clear stewardship responsibilities may face the same risks that led to the helium-3 shortage'. It recommends that the DOE Secretary clarify who is responsible for managing these isotopes.

'Gross mismanagement at the Department of Energy led to a global helium-3 supply crisis that jeopardised US nuclear security programmes, the global oil and gas industry and billion dollar international scientific projects,' said Representative Donna Edwards, the top Democrat on the Committee. Concerns that the DOE may repeat these mistakes has led Edwards to request a more comprehensive GAO investigation.

'This gas is a rare gas, but it has become valuable to the scientific community,' Northwestern University physicist William Halperin tells Chemistry World. But Halperin notes that it suddenly became clear 18 months ago that 'there was no more gas to be had... the scientific community that used this gas had no access.' He says there are no alternatives to helium-3 in some scientific fields - principally cryogenics.

If cryogenic cooling is not available, Halperin warns, much of the basic science being performed in areas like quantum computation, superconductivity, magnetism and superfluids will be jeopardised.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Europe

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