The Isotope Program fills critical needs for 3He in the United States. An earlier shortage has been mitigated.
The Department of Energy (DOE) has supplied isotopes and isotope-related services to the Nation and globally for more than 50 years. The sole supply of 3He stems from refurbishing and dismantling the nuclear stockpile. DOE’s 3He is a byproduct of radioactive tritium decay and is separated during tritium processing at the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. The DOE Isotope Development and Production for Research and Applications Program (Isotope Program), managed by the Office of Science for Nuclear Physics, is responsible for 3He sales and distribution, but not 3He extraction. Each year, thousands of liters of 3He gas are made available for government research, homeland security applications, highway construction quality control, and medical diagnostic procedures. Additional commercial purchasers, including the oil and gas exploration industry, can acquire 3He through an auction conducted by the Isotope Program.
Demand as high as 70,000 liters per year was outpacing government supply in 2008. The increased demand was due to a substantial expansion in 3He use for neutron detectors in national security applications following the 2001 attacks. Increased demand was aggravated by an unexpected reduction of Russian exports to the marketplace. The Isotope Program leads the 3He Inter-Agency Group (IAG), a working group representing fourteen Federal agencies, including the Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, and National Institutes of Health. This group addresses annual supply and demand projections, alternative technologies, priorities for federal 3He utilization, and allocating existing supply. As a result of mitigation measures established by the IAG, including new efficiencies and deploying alternative technologies, projected demand for 3He is now below 10,000 liters per year. DOE and the IAG agree these mitigation measures will stay in place to assure federal 3He needs continue to be met for decades to come. Federal programs taking action to transition to available alternative technologies should continue on that course.
For more information and questions, please contact Mr. Joel Grimm, Program Manager, Stable Isotopes and Accountable Material, Office of Nuclear Physics, Office of Science, at 301-903-2525, or email to Joel.Grimm@science.doe.gov.