Helium-3 Shortage: Supply, Demand, and Options for Congress [September 21, 2010]   [open pdf - 364KB]

From the Summary: "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."

Report Number:
CRS Report for Congress, R41419
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