GAO Points to Progress on Helium-3 Alternatives For Science & Homeland Security Applications

Nov 2, 2011
GAO Points to Progress on Helium-3 Alternatives For Science & Homeland Security Applications

(Washington, DC) – Yesterday the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a “Technology Assessment” on alternative Helium-3 (He-3) neutron detectors.  Helium-3 is a key component in radiation monitors used to detect neutron emitting radiation, such as plutonium, a critical material in some nuclear weapons.  For the past two years, the Science, Space, and Technology Committee has been extensively involved in revealing that there was a critical shortage of Helium-3, and monitoring the Helium-3 supply crisis. 

Helium-3 is a rare non-radioactive gas that has widespread applications and is important to a wide range of industries.  It has been the ‘gold standard’ material used to detect neutrons for homeland security, national security and non-proliferation applications and is broadly used in low temperature physics, quantum computing, neutron scattering facilities, oil and gas well logging, lasers, gyroscopes, road construction and medical lung imaging research. 

He-3 has been produced in both the United States and Russia as a by-product of nuclear weapons development.  During the cold war the U.S. had a steady supply of He-3 gas because tritium, which helps boost the yield of nuclear weapons, decays into Helium-3 gas after approximately 12 ½ years.  But Homeland security demands for He-3 based radiation detectors exploded just as the available supply of Helium-3 was diminishing in the post-cold war arena. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks the desire to field He-3 based radiation portal monitors capable of detecting neutrons at U.S. borders and ports expanded quickly. 

In the mid-2000s, the Department of Energy (DOE), in charge of supplying He-3 gas to public agencies and private industry, failed to realize the supply of He-3 gas was rapidly diminishing just as the demand for He-3 was escalating dramatically. As a result, the U.S. was caught by surprise by these shrinking supplies. In September 2009, in an effort to ensure that the limited supply of He-3 was allocated fairly to those industries that required it, such as medical lung imaging research centers and the oil and gas industry, the White House barred the use of He-3 gas for radiation portal monitors that were consuming the bulk of the inventory of He-3 and encouraged federal agencies and industry to begin a search for alternative technologies. 

The GAO report, “TECHNOLOGY ASSESSMENT: Neutron detectors - Alternatives to using helium-3,” was requested by Mr. Brad Miller, Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Energy & Environment and Ms. Donna F. Edwards former Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Investigations & Oversight.  (Last week Ms. Edwards became the Ranking Member on the Subcommittee on Technology & Innovation.).  The Committee held a hearing and issued a staff report on the Helium-3 crisis on April 22, 2010.[i] Last May, the GAO delivered a report on the Energy Department’s mismanagement of the Helium-3 supply to Mr. Miller and Ms. Edwards.[ii]

The GAO report released yesterday concluded that: “Adopting alternative neutron detector technologies for research, security, and other applications is becoming increasingly important as the nation’s helium-3 supply continues to decrease.” However, the GAO found that the most advanced current alternative to He-3 for radiation portal monitors, a boron-10 lined proportional detector, “could be acquired and deployed with confidence that they will perform as required.” 

“I’m pleased with the success in identifying alternatives to Helium-3,” said Rep. Brad Miller. “I understand that national security concerns complicated the task of monitoring the supply of Helium-3, but I have to think we could have done better than we did. We need to learn from this experience and avoid unexpected shortages of critical materials in the future,” said Miller.

One of the potential replacements for He-3 radiation portal monitor applications successfully completed field tests in July and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) anticipates having this alternative available for deployment in early 2012.  Five other alternative neutron detectors being developed for radiation monitoring applications, one using Boron-10 and four others using Litium-6, are undergoing performance and environmental testing. Both DHS and DOE have already deployed 3,400 He-3 based radiation portal monitors.  These agencies anticipate future deployments of an additional 3,600 radiation portal monitors over the next four to seven years. Finding alternatives to He-3 will be vital to permit these future deployments.

There are many applications of He-3, but next to neutron detection applications for homeland security, the largest consumers of Helium-3 gas are billion dollar neutron scattering facilities. Recently, 10 neutron scattering research facilities in Japan, Germany, Switzerland and the U.S. formed a consortium to help develop alternative He-3 neutron detectors.  Beginning in 2017 many of these facilities will require large amounts of He-3 or an alternative neutron detector as they begin to go on-line or expand their operations.  The Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source, for instance, is planning a $1 billion expansion of its facility that will require alternative He-3 neutron detectors in 2018 when it is estimated to be completed.  The international consortium of neutron scattering facilities has agreed to a process to test and evaluate alternative He-3 technologies for their large-area detectors, said GAO.  The consortium believes they will be able to field a Boron-10 and Boron Trifluoride (BF-3) prototype detector for testing as early as March 2012. 

“I am pleased that the technology is catching up to the demand for alternative supplies of Helium-3 gas,” said Ms. Edwards.  “These technical successes in developing He-3 replacement technologies for homeland security applications and neutron scattering research will both alleviate the He-3 supply pressures on other industries that require it and hopefully lead to successful application of these alternative technologies in other fields as well.”

In order to ensure that the Department of Energy is not ‘caught by surprise’ in the future, Mr. Miller and Ms. Edwards have asked GAO to investigate the DOE’s Isotope Program, which handles both He-3 and many other critical isotopes to ensure they are effectively monitoring the demand and supply of isotopes they supply.  The GAO is currently engaged in that work as follow-up to the Committee’s interest in the Helium-3 issue.

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“TECHNOLOGY ASSESSMENT: Neutron detectors - Alternatives to using helium-3,” Government Accountability Office, GAO-11-753, September 2011, available here: http://www.gao.gov/Products/GAO-11-753

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[i]  “Caught by Surprise: Causes and Consequences of the Helium-3 Supply Crisis,” Hearing before the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, House Committee on Science & Technology, April 22, 2010, available here:

[ii]  “MANAGING CRITICAL ISOTOPES: Weaknesses in DOE’s Management of Helium-3 Delayed the Federal Response to a Critical Supply Shortage,” Government Accountability Office (GAO), GAO-11-472, May 2011, available here: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d11472.pdf