Pickens writes "The NY Times reports that a program to detect plutonium or uranium in shipping containers has stalled because the United States has run out of helium 3, a crucial raw material needed to build the 1,300 to 1,400 machines to be deployed in ports around the world to thwart terrorists who might try to deliver a nuclear bomb to a big city by stashing it in one of the millions of containers that enter the United States every year. Helium 3 is an unusual form of the element that is formed when tritium, an ingredient of hydrogen bombs, decays — but the government mostly stopped making tritium in 1989 after accumulating a substantial stockpile of Helium 3 as a byproduct of maintaining nuclear weapons. 'I have not heard any explanation of why this was not entirely foreseeable,' says Representative Brad Miller, chairman of a House subcommittee that is investigating the problem. Helium 3 is not hazardous or even chemically reactive, and it is not the only material that can be used for neutron detection. The Homeland Security Department has older equipment that can look for radioactivity, but it does not differentiate well between bomb fuel and innocuous materials that naturally emit radiation like cat litter, ceramic tiles and bananas — and sounds false alarms more often. In a letter to President Obama, Miller called the shortage 'a national crisis' and said the price had jumped to $2,000 a liter from $100 in the last few years. With continuing concern that Al Qaida or other terrorists will try to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States, Congress has mandated that, by 2012, all containers bound for the US be inspected overseas."
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