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At its November 1995 meeting, the APS Council adopted a strongly worded statement calling for measures to conserve and enhance the nation's helium reserves. Drafted by the APS Panel on Public Affairs, the action was prompted by pending legislation that would require the nation's helium reserves to be sold off by 2015.
"In the rush to downsize government, the helium program has become a metaphor for 'boondoggle' among politicians who associate it with blimps and party balloons," said Robert L. Park, APS director of public affairs, in the December 8 issue of "What's New," the Society's weekly electronic opinion newsletter. "There is scant awareness of helium's growing cryogenic uses, or of its rapid depletion."
Helium is a constituent of natural gas from a few "helium-rich" fields in the U.S. Only about half of the helium in the gas pumped from these wells is extracted to supply current demand. The rest is irretrievably lost to the atmosphere when the methane is burned. Thus, the exhaustion of our helium is determined less by helium usage than by natural gas demand, which is very high. These helium-rich fields are being rapidly depleted.
The federal government does maintain a helium reserve that could supply the current market demand for about ten years, but demand is growing at about 10% per year. Unfortunately, current legislation aimed at balancing the budget, calls for selling off even this meager reserve by the year 2015 - about the time the helium rich fields will be exhausted.
The text of the APS statement follows.
The American Physical Society is profoundly concerned about the potential loss of the nation's accumulated helium reserves. Helium is essential for achieving the extremely cold temperatures required by many current and emerging technologies, as well as for advanced scientific research. The overall demand for helium has been steadily increasing, and there is every reason to believe that this trend will continue.
Although the United States is fortunate in having a greater abundance of this critical element than any other nation, the supply has severe natural limits. Helium is economically extracted from natural gas. If not extracted, the helium is irretrievably lost to the atmosphere when the gas is burned. For this reason, the federal government prudently established a storage program for helium, but legislation now being considered would dispose of virtually this entire helium store within two decades.
In view of the importance of this unique and irreplaceable natural resource to modern science and technology, The American Physical Society urges that measures be adopted that will both conserve and enhance the nation's helium reserves. Failure to do so would not only be wasteful, but would be economically and technologically short-sighted.
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