Environmentalist responsible for US decline in rare earth minerals

In the Netflix series ‘House of Cards’, a sub-plot in the first season involves the United States suffering an energy crisis due to a Chinese ban on samarium 149, an isotope derived from the rare earth element samarium. The isotope is used in nuclear reactor fuel rods. The TV series takes some dramatic license in using US dependence on Chinese rare earths to orchestrate a showdown between the chief protagonist, southern-fried Vice President Frank Underwood and his nemesis, energy kingpin Raymond Tusk, but it underlines a very real truth:

Without rare earths mined and processed in China, America would be unable to manufacture military hardware – rare earths are great multipliers they are used in making everything from computer monitors and permanent magnets to lasers, guidance control systems and jet engines. There is no substitute and no other supply source is available other than China. Civilian uses of rare earths would also be put in jeopardy. This includes rare earth elements incorporated into electric vehicle motors, computer chips, fiber-optic cables, flat-screen televisions, wind power turbines and nuclear power, just to name a few uses.

The $392-billion F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program was close to being canceled about seven years ago but for intervention by the Pentagon to prevent further delays. Reuters reported in 2014 that the chief US arms buyer allowed two F-35 suppliers, Northrop Grumman Corp and Honeywell, to use Chinese magnets for the plane’s radar system, landing gears and other hardware.

In doing so, the Pentagon was actually waiving laws banning Chinese-built components on US weapons. Permanent magnets employ the rare earths neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium.

If that doesn’t stick in your throat, how about the fact that the program was hacked and copied by the People’s Liberation Army, which “recently rolled out some suspiciously sophisticated stealth fighter prototypes of its own,” according to a 2013 article in Breaking Defense.

The Trump Administration last year recognized the importance of rare earths elements – albeit as an after-thought – when it pulled them off a list of Chinese imports to be hit with US tariffs. China mines about 80% of the 17 elements that appear on the Periodic Table, and has a lock on about 90% of rare earth processing.

It’s a little known fact that the United States was once the largest producer of rare earths in the world, at the Mountain Pass Mine in California.

Little happened at Mountain Pass during the 1950s except for the odd bit of research by the defense and scientific communities, but that all changed in the 1960s with the color TV. The discovery of europium, which emits a brilliant red light when bombarded with electrons, ushered in the age of technicolor, and Mountain Pass, which had abundant europium, flourished. Rare earths mined there were also used in medical scanners, lasers, fluorescent lights and microchips.

In 1980, a mis-classification of rare earths had catastrophic consequences for US rare earth mining. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the International Regulatory Agency placed rare earth mining under the same regulations as mining thorium – a radioactive element that drops out when processing heavy rare earth minerals like monazite. As we have written, the nuclear industry and its future would look a whole lot different if thorium rather than uranium was pursued as the main nuclear fuel. But that’s a different story.

New, onerous regulations on thorium made the mining and refining of thorium-bearing rare earth elements risky. Over the next two decades, the US rare earth mining industry collapsed. Defense One notes that, even though American mining companies extract enough rare earth ore, through mining other metals, to meet 85% of global demand, it is discarded because the regulations make it uneconomic to mine. How’s that for irony.
There is much more.

The Chicoms filled the void and thus made the US more vulnerable.  It was a strategic mistake that needs to be reversed immediately.


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