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October 09, 2013

GAO Raises Questions about Adequate Supply of Lithium-7 for Nuclear Power Reactors

(Washington, DC) - In a new report the Government Accountability Office (GAO) raises serious concerns about the future U.S. supply of Lithium-7, a critical radioactive isotope required for the safe operation of more than half of the nation’s nuclear power plants.  The report, “MANAGING CRITICAL ISOTOPES: Stewardship of Lithium-7 Is Needed to Ensure a Stable Supply,” was requested by Rep. Dan Maffei (D-NY), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Oversight of the Committee on Science, Space & Technology.

Currently there are 100 operating nuclear power plants in the U.S., 65 of which are Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs).  These reactors supply an estimated 13-percent of U.S. electricity needs.  Lithium-7 (Li-7) is used to reduce the pH level or acidity in the cooling water of these types of nuclear plants and separately they are added to demineralizers to filter contaminants out of the reactor’s cooling water.  The absence of Li-7 can lead to increased corrosion of the pipes in the reactor reducing its longevity and causing potential safety hazards. 

The U.S. has not produced a domestic supply of lithium-7 since 1963 because the process that had been used to manufacture Li-7 was riddled with equipment failures and used large amounts of mercury, a harmful chemical that exposed workers to health risks and contaminated the environment.  Since then the U.S. has acquired its lithium-7 supplies from Russia and China, the sole global exporters of this critical isotope.  In its investigation GAO determined that there is cause for concern that the future supply of lithium-7 from these nations may be shrinking. 

The GAO report concluded that the DOE’s Isotope Program has failed to assume its stewardship responsibility for lithium-7 and has underestimated both domestic demand for lithium-7 and the technical challenges industry may face in coping with a supply disruption.  “In the end, without a full awareness of supply risks and an accurate assessment of domestic demand,” concluded GAO, “utilities may not be prepared for a shortage of lithium-7.  This leaves the reactors that depend on lithium-7 vulnerable to supply disruptions that, if not addressed, could lead to their shutdown.”  The GAO recommended that the Secretary of Energy direct the Isotope Program to take a more active role in assessing lithium-7 supply risks, communicating those risks to industry, determining domestic demand and ensuring risks are appropriately managed. 

According to GAO, the DOE said it assessed U.S. lithium-7 supply and demand needs and does not believe any further steps are needed.  The GAO, however, found major shortcomings with DOE’s May 2013 analysis of the U.S. lithium-7 market.  For instance, the DOE believed there were just two U.S. lithium-7 brokers importing Li-7 into the U.S., when GAO found there were actually three lithium-7 brokers in the U.S. and DOE underestimated the domestic consumption needs of lithium-7 by 50-percent, falsely assuming U.S. Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) consume an estimated 200 kilograms of lithium-7 per year, when in reality GAO found that the 65 U.S. PWRs require an estimated 300 kilograms of lithium-7 annually.

The GAO report also found that the U.S. Department of Energy has no clear indication of how much lithium-7 is produced in either China or Russia or what the annual demand for Li-7 is domestically in those countries.  China, however, is in the process of constructing more than 25 pressurized water reactors scheduled to begin operating by 2015.  In addition, China is planning to build a new type of nuclear power reactor - a molten salt reactor - that will require 1,000s of kilograms of lithium-7 to operate each reactor.  The first pilot plant is expected to come on-line in 2020.  The impact of China’s nuclear construction boom on lithium-7 supplies is unclear, but one expert told GAO that China had recently purchased Li-7 from a Russian supplier raising doubts about future lithium-7 exports from China. 

Russia does not appear to have a particular domestic need for lithium-7 because their PWRs rely on a different process to lower the acidity of the reactor’s cooling water.  But Russia’s exports of Li-7 to the U.S. cannot be assured either.  In its report, the GAO found that in June 2013 one of three lithium-7 brokers in the U.S. was having difficulty obtaining Li-7 from their Russian supplier.  In addition, a second U.S. broker reported that their Chinese supplier told them recently that they had no supplies of Li-7 to sell.  Whether this was a temporary disruption or a pattern of future supply shortages is still unclear but the potential of future Lithium-7 supply problems is apparent.  These events should be warning signs for the Department of Energy’s Isotope Program. “The risk of relying on so few producers for lithium-7 leaves the 65 pressurized water reactors in the United States vulnerable to supply disruptions,” GAO wrote. 

This is the third report GAO has produced for the Committee regarding the DOE’s management of its Isotope Program in the past three years and they have each pointed to similar problems.  Last year the GAO issued a report titled: “Managing Critical Isotopes: DOE's Isotope Program Needs Better Planning for Setting Prices and Managing Production Risks,” and in 2011, the GAO delivered a report titled: “Managing Critical Isotopes: Weaknesses in DOE's Management of Helium-3 Delayed the Federal Response to a Critical Supply Shortage.”  In the GAO’s most recent report GAO concluded: “No federal entity has taken stewardship responsibility for assessing risks to the lithium-7 supply for the commercial nuclear power industry.”

GAO identified several options to mitigate a potential lithium-7 shortage, including establishing a domestic reserve and building a domestic lithium-7 production capability.  According to federal officials GAO interviewed, a pilot plant capable of producing Li-7 would take about 5 years to construct at a cost of $10 to $12 million.

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