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Environment

Communication Lapse Fueled Helium-3 Gap

by David J. Hanson
June 6, 2011 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 89, ISSUE 23

A serious lack of communication between agencies in the Department of Energy caused the present shortage of helium-3, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO-11-472). DOE’s Isotope Program, which is supposed to provide helium-3 for research and national security uses, was not informed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), another DOE agency, about shortages in production of the isotope as far back as 2008. The U.S.’s only source of helium-3 is collection from the decay of tritium during work on updating the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. Although some progress has been made in resolving this problem (C&EN, May 10, 2010, page 31), GAO reports that the shortage continues. To increase supplies, DOE has reset its priorities for distribution of helium-3 and is pursuing other sources and alternatives. Specifically, NNSA is determining whether it can buy helium-3 from Ontario Power Generation, which makes the gas as a by-product of electricity generation from a type of nuclear reactor not found in the U.S.

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