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 officialsWhat GAO RecommendsGAO recommends, among other things, that DOE clarify whether the stewardship for those isotopes produced outside the Isotope Program, such as helium-3, rests with the program or another DOE entity. DOE stated that it understands and can implement these recommendations.