Shortage of Helium – challenges for Cargo Security and potential contractual dilemma for Security Agencies

While the topic of non-intrusive detection equipment there has been much-a-do about the shortage of helium over the last 18 months, the impact this may have for existing investments in scanner and radiation detection equipment poses an even more ominous question, particularly those countries and agencies having already invested in US-based technology.

The demand for nuclear detectors exploded (if you’ll pardon the expression) from 8,000l/year to ten times that in 2008 due to increased efforts to stop nuclear proliferation and terrorism. But production of helium-3, a critical element in nuclear detection technology, has not kept pace and existing stockpiles are quickly dwindling. Alternatives are currently in the early stages of development and researchers have found several promising leads; when an alternative is found, current radiation detection equipment will have to be replaced with the new technology.

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 Sept. 11 attacks.

Projected demand for the non-radioactive gas in 2010 is said to be more than 76,000 litres per year, while U.S. production is a mere 8,000 litres annually, and U.S. total supply rests at less than 48,000 litres. This shortage wasn’t identified until a workshop put on by the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Physics in August 2008. Between 2004 and 2008, about 25,000 litres of helium-3 annually was entering the U.S. from Russia. Right around the time of the August workshop, Russia decided it was “reserving its supplies for domestic use.

Helium-3 is primarily used in security applications as it is highly sensitive to the neutrons that are emitted by plutonium. Roughly 80 percent of helium-3 supplies are used for national security. Since 9/11 demand for radiation detectors increased sharply, however production failed to increase. The shortage is reported to severely effect even the handheld and backpack detectors used by the U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and Transportation Security Administration. A representative of General Electric Energy, which manufactures radiation detectors, said, “Up to six different neutron-detection technologies may be required to replace helium-3 detectors” for its four main uses and “[a] drop-in replacement technology for helium-3 does not exist today.” When an acceptable alternative is found, current radiation detection equipment will have to be replaced with the new technology. In the meantime, industrial manufacturers of detection equipment have been diversifying their helium-3 sources and turning to recycling old helium-3 canisters.

In June 2011, however, General Electric (GE) did announce that it had introduced a new radiation detection solution using boron-10 (10B) to detect radiation in border security applications. These detectors are key components of radiation portal monitors used in a wide range of applications including screening at borders and in seaports. GE is the only company to date to manufacture an alternate neutron detection technology for deployment in radiation portal monitors.

It still needs to be seen how manufacturers will deal with their existing customers. Concerned Customs Administrations and Security Agencies should be reviewing the terms and conditions of their supply agreements in the meantime. Future acquisitions will no doubt look at Helium-3 based technology with sceptism unless they are uninformed.

Sources: WIRED, General Electric

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