WASHINGTON — The United States is running out of a rare gas that is crucial for detecting smuggled nuclear weapons materials because one arm of the Energy Department was selling the gas six times as fast as another arm could accumulate it, and the two sides failed to communicate for years, according to a new Congressional audit.
The gas, helium-3, is a byproduct of the nuclear weapons program, but as the number of nuclear weapons has declined, so has the supply of the gas. Yet, as the supply was shrinking, the government was investing more than $200 million to develop detection technology that required helium-3.
As a result, government scientists and contractors are now racing to find or develop a new detection technology.
According to the Government Accountability Office report, the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which gathers the gas from old nuclear weapons, never told the department’s Isotope Program about the slowing rate of helium-3 production. That is in part because it was secret information that could be used to calculate the size of weapon stockpiles.
For its part, the Isotope Program calculated demand for the gas not in a scientific way but instead on the basis of how many commercial companies called to inquire each year about helium-3 supplies.
Representative Donna Edwards of Maryland characterized the situation as “gross mismanagement.” As the ranking Democrat on the House science committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, Ms. Edwards was one of the members of Congress who asked the accountability office to study the problem after it was detected in 2008.
“With so much riding on helium-3, it is shocking to learn that the department’s forecast for demand is based simply on a telephone log tracking those who called asking about the availability of helium-3,” she said.
The report is to be released in the coming week by Ms. Edwards and Representative Brad Miller of North Carolina, the ranking Democrat on the science committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.
Energy Department officials said that since the discrepancy was discovered, they had moved the Isotope Program under the umbrella of the agency’s science division and had worked harder to forecast supply and demand for various materials. But they did acknowledge the bureaucratic fumble; the Isotope Program is responsible for the supply of materials it produces, but not for the supply of those it distributes but are produced by other parts of the Energy Department.
The helium-3 is considered a “legacy material,” something that exists only because of past activities. Ms. Edwards pointed out that helium-3 was also used in the oil and gas industry and in research.
Because of divided responsibilities and a sudden new source of demand, “all of a sudden we realized we had this additional factor and had to come up with something different,” Steven Aoki, the deputy under secretary of energy for counterterrorism, said in a telephone interview. He said he was optimistic that new technologies using more readily available materials would be ready in a year or two.
Some members of Congress, though, are more skeptical about the time frame — and the cost. The Department of Homeland Security spent $230 million to develop the detection technology calling for helium-3.
From 2003 to 2009, the Isotope Program was selling the gas at a rate of about 30,000 liters a year, while the weapons program was producing only 8,000 to 10,000 liters, the accountability office found.
The Energy Department and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, have produced various isotopes for commercial and governmental use for decades.
Helium-3, once considered a waste product, is produced by the radioactive decay of tritium, a form of hydrogen used in nuclear weapons to increase the yield. But the United States stopped producing tritium in 1988 because of safety problems at the reactors that made it.
The Energy and Homeland Security Departments “built large, multibillion-dollar programs around an assumed endless supply” of helium-3, according to a staff report from the House science committee.
The detection program that relies on helium-3 has since been scaled back.
The Energy Department is negotiating with a nuclear power company in Ontario that might be able to supply some helium-3. Canadian reactors, unlike the models used in this country, produce significant quantities of tritium as a byproduct of electricity production. But working out the commercial arrangements and setting up the equipment necessary to gather the helium-3 will probably take years, experts say.
There are other ways to build equipment to detect smuggled nuclear material, but helium-3 is nontoxic and nonradioactive and is considered more accurate. The neutrons given off by plutonium and uranium are hard to detect, but when helium-3 is hit by a stray neutron, it creates a charged particle, which is readily detected and measured.