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Proposed Bill Would Revive U.S. Rare Earths Industry

— 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.


DOE Collaborates With China on Thorium Reactors

— June 27, 2012

The U.S. Department of Energy is collaborating with China on thorium-based reactors with molten salt cores, according to a report on Smart Planet.  Written by Mark Halper, a United Kingdom-based energy reporter who writes for several U.S. and U.K. publications, the report both confirms what I reported in my book, SuperFuel – that China plans to be a world leader in advanced nuclear technology, including thorium reactors – and outlines publicly for the first time links between the DOE (specifically, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which pioneered molten salt reactor research from the 1960s) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), which is spearheading R&D on advanced nuclear power in China.

China, which plans to build dozens of new reactors over the next few decades in an effort to wean itself off of coal-fired power plants, is exploring a range of advanced nuclear technologies, including molten-salt thorium reactors (also known as “liquid fuel thorium reactors,” or LFTRs, pronounced “lifters”) as well as fast neutron reactors.  Bill Gates, a backer of nuclear technology startup TerraPower, has publicly spoken of his intention to work with Chinese researchers to help develop next-generation nuclear reactors.  China currently gets less than 2% of its power from nuclear plants.

Thorium, a radioactive element that was instrumental in early nuclear physics experiments of the late 19th and early 20th century, offers several key advantages over uranium as a nuclear fuel.  It’s four times as abundant, and its long half-life (around 14.2 billion years, about the same as the age of the universe) makes it safe to store and handle.  No enrichment is needed to turn it into a nuclear fuel, and it produces far less waste by volume than conventional uranium reactors.  In fact, LFTRs can actually consume waste produced by conventional uranium reactors, processing it into a form that is much easier to store, and which can be used to start up new LFTRs.  Most importantly, thorium is useless as a material for bombs.

While individual scientists at Oak Ridge have privately worked to support new thorium reactor development, and several bills have been introduced in Congress to fund thorium R&D, the U.S. government has had no official involvement in the burgeoning worldwide thorium movement – at least until now, according to Halper’s report.  The organizational chart below was pulled from a presentation by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  It shows a deep level of interaction between DOE officials, U.S. scientists from MIT, the University of California Berkeley, and other institutions, and their Chinese counterparts.

Co-chairing the partnership’s executive committee are DOE assistant secretary for nuclear energy Peter Lyons and Jiang Mianheng from the CAS.  Jiang, who according to his official biography holds a Ph.D. from Drexel University, is the son of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin – a fact that has led observers to conclude that the thorium reactor program is backed at the highest levels of the Chinese government.

As I’ve emphasized in my talks about thorium, anything that helps China reduce its dependence on coal is a welcome development.  There are many in the thorium movement, however, who see Chinese supremacy in advanced nuclear technology as an economic and security threat to the United States (one thorium activist used the word “treason” in an email reacting to the Smart Planet story).  China already controls the world market for rare earths, elements that are used in a variety of high-tech applications including smartphone displays, missile guidance systems, and electric vehicles.  Thorium is almost always found in association with rare earth elements, and China is reportedly stockpiling thorium mined as a byproduct at its huge rare earth mines in Inner Mongolia.

“Some skeptics worry that the U.S. is foolishly abetting Chinese efforts to advance a crucial energy technology that China could soon control,” notes Halper, “and thus give China hegemony in two vital areas: rare earths and energy.”

The DOE-CAS collaboration is a key development in an emerging technology that could present one of the major energy breakthroughs of the 21st century.  I’ve requested comment from the DOE and others mentioned in the Smart Planet report, and I will update this blog with responses as they become available.


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