Stopping nuclear smuggling is already tough. But it’s about to get a lot harder. Helium-3, a crucial ingredient in neutron-particle-detection technology, is in extremely short supply. A Democratic congressman from North Carolina, who serves as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, chided the Departments of Energy and Homeland Security at a hearing on the issue late last week, suggesting that they created a preventable “disaster.” The Energy Department is the sole American supplier of helium-3, and DHS is supposed to take the lead in spotting and stopping illicit nuclear material. The helium-3 isotope represents less than 0.0002 percent of all helium. Of that, about 80 percent of helium-3 usage is devoted to security purposes, because the gas is extremely sensitive to neutrons, like those emitted spontaneously by plutonium. Helium-3 is a decay product of tritium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen used to enhance the yield of nuclear weapons, but whose production stopped in 1988. The half-life decay of tritium is about 12 years, and the U.S. supply for helium-3 is fed by harvesting the gas from dismantled or refurbished nuclear weapons. However, production of helium-3 hasn’t kept pace with the exponential demand sparked by the September 11 attacks. Projected demand for the nonradioactive gas in 2010 is said to be more than 76,000 liters per year, while U.S. production is a mere 8,000 liters annually, and U.S. total supply rests at less than 48,000 liters.

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