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Friday, January 7, 2011

The Helium-3 Shortage: Supply, Demand, and Options for Congress

Dana A. Shea
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

Daniel Morgan
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

The world is experiencing a shortage of helium-3, a rare isotope of helium with applications in homeland security, national security, medicine, industry, and science. For many years the supply of helium-3 from the nuclear weapons program outstripped the demand for helium-3. The demand was small enough that a substantial stockpile of helium-3 accumulated. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government began deploying neutron detectors at the U.S. border to help secure the nation against smuggled nuclear and radiological material. The deployment of this equipment created new demand for helium-3. Use of the polarized helium-3 medical imaging technique also increased. As a result, the size of the stockpile shrank. After several years of demand exceeding supply, a call for large quantities of helium-3 spurred federal officials to realize that insufficient helium-3 was available to meet the likely future demand.

Policymakers now face a number of challenging decisions. In the short term, these decisions are mainly about how to allocate a scarce resource in the face of competing priorities: science versus security, the private sector versus the public sector, and national needs versus international obligations. Applications with unique needs may pose particular challenges. For example, some types of cryogenic research can only be accomplished using helium-3, whereas in medical imaging and neutron detection, helium 3 has advantages but also alternatives. In the longer term, policymakers also face choices about how or whether to increase helium-3 supply or reduce helium-3 demand and about possible alternative mechanisms for allocating supply. It seems likely that a combination of policy approaches will be necessary.

In addition to the nuclear weapons program, potential sources of helium-3 include tritium produced as a byproduct in commercial heavy-water nuclear reactors; extraction of naturally occurring helium-3 from natural gas or the atmosphere; and production of either tritium or helium-3 using particle accelerators. Until recently, the ready supply of helium-3 from the nuclear weapons program meant that these alternative sources were not considered economic. With the current shortage, this perception may change.

The federal response to the helium-3 shortage began only after the shortage had occurred. Policy was established first by an ad-hoc interagency group formed by the Departments of Energy (DOE), Homeland Security (DHS), and Defense (DOD), and then by an interagency committee established by the National Security Staff. The committee developed a rationing scheme for allocating the available helium-3. Some federal and private-sector users received no allocation or an amount less than they had planned. Several federal agencies are investigating alternative sources of helium-3 and ways to reduce the demand.

Congress is just beginning to grapple with the helium-3 problem. In April 2010, Congress held its first hearing whose main subject was helium-3. So far, congressional attention appears to be focused on oversight of the current situation, how it arose, and the processes currently in place for addressing it. In future hearings and legislation, Congress may address additional issues, such as increasing the helium-3 supply, reducing demand, or changing how supply is allocated.

This report discusses the nature of the shortage; federal actions undertaken so far to address it; current and potential sources of helium-3 and options for increasing the supply; current and projected uses of helium-3 and options for reducing the demand; and options for allocating the supply if it continues to fall short of the demand.

Date of Report: December 22, 2010
Number of Pages: 31
Order Number: R41419
Price: $29.95

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