Helium-3 was "considered a waste product from the weapons so it was priced low," explained Director Julie Bentz of the Nuclear Defense Policy Office of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Coordinator. She spoke today during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.
The gas is part of the leftovers that come from cooking up a hydrogen bomb, which requires uranium and a dash of tritium. When the radioactive tritium decays it produces helium-3. While there are other ways of decaying tritium without needing to build a bomb to do it, the United States has recently found itself in short supply of both tritium and the resulting helium-3.
So short in fact, that last year when the looming crisis, which reporters had been covering for years, became official, the price of helium-3 went from $150 per liter to $5,000 per liter. "We think the correct price should be $1500," Bentz said.
The science, medical and security uses for helium-3 are so diverse that the crisis banded together a hodge-podge of universities, hospitals and government departments to try and find workable alternatives and engineer ways to recycle the gas they do have.