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Proposed Bill Would Revive U.S. Rare Earths Industry

Richard Martin — February 28, 2014

Attempting to solve two energy security crises at a single stroke, Missouri senator Roy Blunt in early February introduced the National Refining Cooperative Act of 2014 (NRECA), which would create a federally chartered corporation to build and operate a processing facility for rare earth elements.  Used in a variety of cleantech, defense, and telecommunications technologies, rare earths have become increasingly valuable over the last decade even as producers in China have established an effective world monopoly on their production.

Until the early 2000s, the United States was the world’s leading supplier of lanthanides, scandium, yttrium, and other rare earths, and the Mountain Pass mine on the border of Nevada and California was the world’s largest producer of the minerals.  Dogged by environmental issues and flat world prices, the Mountain Pass mine shut down in 2002, and rare earths production in the United States evaporated.  As I reported in Fortune in 2011, a Denver-based company called Molycorp has restarted Mountain Pass and is attempting to carve out a place as a significant producer of rare earths.  However, China still controls 95% of the market and has demonstrated its willingness to curtail exports in order to control the world’s supply.

Critical Elements

“We are here to state the importance of the need to bring back the rare earth industry to the U.S. to protect and grow jobs as well as to control our own sources of rare earths that are so important to green technologies, aerospace, and defense, and energy-efficient motors and generators,” testified Robert Strahs, the VP and general manager of Arnold Magnetic Technologies, before a U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing in 2011.

Backing NRECA is a loose coalition of developers, miners, and alternative energy activists, including the Thorium Energy Alliance, which for the last 5 years has been promoting the development of nuclear reactors that use thorium, a radioactive element, rather than uranium.  As I documented in my 2012 book SuperFuel, thorium is cleaner, safer, and more abundant than uranium and is effectively impossible to fashion into explosives.  It’s also nearly always found in association with rare earths.  NRECA would create a private corporation that would store the thorium left over from rare earths production and formulate and market it for commercial uses, including energy generation.

Thorium is almost ubiquitous in the Earth’s surface, and the United States possesses enough readily available thorium to produce ample electricity for hundreds of years.  Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee pioneered thorium reactor research in the 1960s, but the program was abandoned under the Nixon Administration.  Other countries are moving forward.  The Indian Atomic Energy Commission recently debuted the prototype of the advanced heavy water reactor (AHWR), which is designed to run on solid thorium fuel.  The AHWR is being developed at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, outside Mumbai, which has become one of the world’s centers of thorium reactor research.

The Refining Cooperative bill is designed to end China’s monopoly on strategically important rare earth elements and to provide a consistent supply of thorium to fuel low-risk, zero-carbon nuclear power for generations.  Nevertheless, NRECA’s backers have faced a multiyear uphill struggle just to get the bill introduced.  The current bill, introduced in the Senate, could be matched in coming weeks with a similar piece of legislation introduced in the House as part of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, the annual budget bill for the Department of Defense.

“We have strong bipartisan support in the House and on the Senate Armed Services Committee,” Jim Kennedy, a Missouri developer and one of the bill’s leading proponents, told me.

They’ll need it.

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