Crisis Averted? How a Critical Shortage in Helium-3 Was Good and Bad for Science

Saturday, February 19, 2011: 10:00 AM-11:30 AM
102A (Washington Convention Center )
Helium-3 (He-3) is a rare helium isotope with unique properties that have led to uses in nuclear medicine, ultra-cold refrigeration, detecting smuggled fissile materials, safeguarding nuclear weapons and power plants, oil and gas exploration, and, potentially, nuclear fusion. He-3 is a decay product of tritium, a key component in advanced U.S. nuclear weapons. The production of tritium was halted in 1988 and only restarted in 2007, at a much lower rate. Within 2 years, He-3 stocks will essentially be depleted, and its anticipated annual production rate will fill only one-tenth of its recent demand. This has been a significant hardship for several of the fields that use He-3, since there is simply no suitable replacement. In other fields, such as neutron detection, significant progress has been made over the last 12–18 months in identifying, commercializing, and deploying new technologies. This symposium will examine how the U.S. government has restructured how He-3 is allocated, what new technologies are available as He-3 replacements, what the U.S. government is doing to increase supplies, and how affected industries have adapted to this crisis. We will also explore how this shortage may have been a boon to science by forcing the development of new technologies and techniques and how international consumers of He-3, largely dependent on U.S. supplies of the gas, have responded to the supply crunch.
Benn Tannenbaum, Sandia National Laboratories
Julie Bentz, Executive Office of the U.S. President
Crisis Management: How the U.S. Government Responded to the Shortage
Joe Glaser, DOE/NNSA Office for Counterterrorism
Crisis as Opportunity: Why a Shortage of He-3 Led to New Science
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