U.S. looks to OPG for helium 3 from tritium

DARLINGTON, ONTARIO - The United States is looking to Ontario for a key compound used in bomb-detection devices thatÂ’s in short supply around the globe.

The American government is conducting a feasibility study to see if the province can provide the answer to the helium 3 shortage south of the border.

Helium 3 — which is used in border scanners that can detect smuggled nuclear bombs — comes from tritium, which Ontario’s power company extracts from heavy water used in its CANDU nuclear reactors.

New Brunswick and Quebec also have CANDU reactors, but they donÂ’t have the technology to separate tritium from the water.

The study will examine what needs to be done to facilitate the shipment of tritium to the U.S., which has the technology to turn it into helium 3, said Ted Gruetzner, a spokesman for Ontario Power Generation.

“I think both parties see it as a way of keeping North Americans more safe, or has the potential to do that,” he said.

“This is really just doing the legwork and the homework on what it is you need to do to make this work.”

The study, due in April, will also determine the costs and potential revenues of exporting tritium to the United States, Gruetzner said.

“Because we’re the ones who actually own the material and have the source, they want to work with us on technical issues, regulatory issues, security issues — all those questions that need to be answered before both parties can look at it and say, ‘Yes, this is something we should proceed with,’” he said.

Any potential regulatory hurdles would likely be small, since Ontario already ships medical isotopes to the States.

A U.S. official said the government is looking at other suppliers, but wouldnÂ’t say where.

“The Department of Energy is looking at multiple sources for tritium/He-3, but at this point it would be premature to disclose those locations,” National Nuclear Safety Administration spokesman Damien LaVera wrote in an email.

“The study, which is due in April, is examining logistical and cost issues associated with increasing the supply of He-3, a critical component in key non-proliferation technologies.”

Ontario has four CANDU reactors currently operating at Darlington station near Clarington, Ont., six at its Pickering station east of Toronto and six others in Kincardine, Ont., leased to Bruce Power LP — all of which produce heavy water.

The water picks up tritium during the CANDU process, which is separated from the water at OPGÂ’s tritium-removal facility in Darlington.

However, OPG doesnÂ’t have the technology to extract helium 3 from tritium. It stores the radioactive isotope in its solid metallic form in a special facility, and the water goes back into the reactor.

OPG extracts 220 litres of tritium a week — about 11,400 litres a year.

U.S. demand for helium 3 is expected to reach 76,330 litres this year, far outpacing the total available supply of 47,600 litres and projected annual production of 8,000 litres.

While the U.S. has the technology to separate helium 3 from tritium, its supplies have dried up, Gruetzner said.

The government stopped producing tritium — a key ingredient in hydrogen bombs — in 1988, and has been harvesting it from nuclear stockpiles ever since.

Helium 3 is created from the radioactive decay of tritium, which has a number of uses, including self-illuminating emergency exit signs and glow-in-the-dark hands on a watch.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security poured hundreds of millions of dollars into developing new scanners that are supposed to detect plutonium or uranium in shipping containers. But it had to stop deploying them due to a shortage of helium 3.

Helium 3 is also used in oil and gas exploration and scientific experiments, as well as physics research and medical diagnostics.


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