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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
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.
Closed - Implemented
DOE has taken steps to communicate stewardship responsibility and improve communication regarding isotopes that are distributed by DOE's Isotope Program, but whose supplies are managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Specifically, the Isotope Program has been working with NNSA's Office of Nuclear Materials Integration (ONMI) to improve communication about supplies of and demand for isotopes that are distributed by the Isotope Program. According to an official in ONMI, the NNSA parent program for an isotope, i.e., the program that makes, uses, and/or stores an isotope, is responsible for managing the isotope. The Isotope Program works through the ONMI to collect information on supplies of isotopes managed by NNSA programs and to understand NNSA program needs for isotopes. For example, according to an NNSA report, the improved communication between ONMI and the Isotope Program led to the Isotope Program obtaining a supply of Curium-244 from NNSA. An official in ONMI explained that the Curium would have been sold to an overseas researcher, but instead it was transferred to the Isotope Program to use in creating other isotopes. According to the official in ONMI, communication between ONMI and the Isotope Program has improved greatly since our report was issued in 2011, which brought attention to the issues identified in that report.
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.
Closed - Implemented
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has established channels for communicating with DOE's Isotope Program about the inventory and disposition of materials that are managed by NNSA and distributed by the Isotope Program. Specifically, according to a NNSA report, its Office of Nuclear Material Integration (ONMI) has taken responsibility for communicating with DOE's Isotope Program through several channels. For example, the Isotope Program is represented on DOE's Nuclear Materials Advisory Board, along with other DOE and NNSA entities, and is chaired by ONMI. The Advisory Board meets periodically to discuss nuclear materials management issues including supply and disposition issues of materials that the Isotope Program distributes but does not produce. Additionally, the Isotope Program and ONMI jointly sponsor an annual federal workshop on isotopes that focuses on identifying and understanding the general demands of federal agencies. ONMI has also agreed to contact the Isotope Program prior to the disposition of materials to determine if there are other uses for the material. For example, according to the NNSA report, ONMI stopped the disposal of Curium-244--one of the 17 isotopes the Isotope Program distributes but does not produce--because the Isotope Program demonstrated a need for it to support heavy element production.
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.
Closed - Not Implemented
According to the Isotope Program, it has assessed supply and demand for some key isotopes and is working with stakeholders to manage supply and demand of isotopes for which the program does not control the supply of. However, strategies that identify goals for managing isotopes in short supply and associated risks have not been developed for most of the 17 isotopes identified in our report. The Isotope Program does not believe additional actions are needed. Therefore, we are closing this recommendation as not implemented.
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.
Closed - Implemented
DOE's Isotope Program has taken action to understand the demand for isotopes it distributes, consistent with the recommendation of the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee. Specifically, the advisory committee recommended that the Isotope Program maintain a continuous dialogue with federal and commercial customers to forecast demand in order to match isotope demand with production capabilities. To accomplish this, the Isotope Program holds annual workshops and regularly communicates with customers. For example, the Isotope Program holds annual workshops devoted to understanding the isotope demands of federal agencies, commercial customers, and the medical industry. Through these workshops and other interactions, Isotope Program officials are able to meet one-on-one with customers to specifically discuss their isotope needs. The Isotope Program also established the National Isotope Development Center (NIDC) with the mission of interfacing with customers and managing the coordination of isotope production across the facilities and business operations involved in the production, sale, and distribution of isotopes.

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