Helium-3 gas is a key component of equipment used at ports and border crossings to detect radiation and prevent the smuggling of nuclear material into the United States, among other uses. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a separate agency within the Department of Energy (DOE), extracts helium-3 and controls the inventory. Since 2003, NNSA has made helium-3 available for sale to DOE's Isotope Development and Production for Research and Applications Program (Isotope Program). After September 11, 2001, demand increased for radiation detection equipment, and in 2008, the federal government learned that it faced a severe domestic shortage of the gas. GAO was asked to review DOE's management of helium-3 to (1) determine the extent to which the federal government's response to the helium-3 shortage was affected by DOE's management of helium-3; (2) determine the federal government's priorities for allocating the limited supply of helium-3; and (3) describe the steps that the federal government is taking to increase the helium-3 supply and develop alternatives to helium-3. GAO reviewed DOE and NNSA documents and interviewed cognizant agency officials.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Energy||1. To avoid future shortages associated with managing all isotopes that the Isotope Program sells but whose supply it does not control, including helium-3, the Secretary of Energy should clarify whether the stewardship for all these isotopes belongs with the Isotope Program or elsewhere within the Department of Energy.|
|Department of Energy||2. Once the stewardship for the isotopes have been assigned, the Secretary of Energy should direct the head of the responsible office(s) to develop and implement a communication process that provides complete information to the assigned entity on the production and inventory of isotopes that are produced outside the Isotope Program.|
|Department of Energy||3. Once the stewardship for the isotopes have been assigned, the Secretary of Energy should direct the head of the responsible office(s) to develop strategic plans that, among other things, systematically assess and document risks to managing the isotopes and supporting activities, such as not having control over the supply of these isotopes, and implement actions needed to mitigate them.|
|Department of Energy||4. Once the stewardship for the isotopes have been assigned, the Secretary of Energy should direct the head of the responsible office(s) to develop and implement a method for forecasting the demand of isotopes that is more accurate than the one that is currently used. In this regard, the actions taken should be consistent with the forecasting recommendation from the subcommittee report of the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee.|