Uranium Joins Rare Earth Elements In “Frightening Shortage”

Minerals essential for national security

BY J. WINSTON PORTER, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR —  07/30/19 07:00 AM EDT THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY CONTRIBUTORS ARE THEIR OWN AND NOT THE VIEW OF THE HILL 

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Minerals essential for national security

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America is increasingly dependent on imported uranium and other minerals that are essential for our national security. 

The U.S. relies on imports for 93 percent of its uranium needs, and dependence on foreign nuclear-fuel is expected to reach almost 99 percent by the end of this year. Although the U.S. has some of the largest and highest-grade uranium deposits in the world, imported uranium is still less expensive. 

Much of our uranium comes from Russia and other former Soviet Union states, whose state-owned companies are flooding the global market and driving free-market companies out of business.

A crisis may not be imminent, but the long-term implications for weapons systems central to national defense, including the Navy’s fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines, are serious. 

Absent a change in direction, U.S. dependence on imported uranium may create a growing national security threat. And it will cause serious trouble for key sectors of our economy, if something isn’t done soon to boost domestic uranium production.

Nuclear power producers, who generate the largest share of the nation’s emissions-free power, are also concerned about the collapse of the nation’s uranium supply chain. The damage from the loss of this key industry would extend to radionuclides needed for medical diagnosis and many other technologies. 

Given the risk of a spike in the price of uranium imports or an actual embargo aimed at the U.S., developing a government policy to counter the threat to our national security and economic well-being is long overdue. President Trump recently announced a group that will draw up recommendations for reviving and expanding U.S. nuclear-fuel production. 

But beyond that, we need policies that will reduce America’s reliance on foreign countries for many other important minerals and help lay the groundwork for a revival of domestic mining.

Rare earth minerals are another good example. There are some 17 rare earth elements such as lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium and samarium. These little-known minerals are vital components of weapons systems and in multiple commercial products ranging from batteries for electric vehicles and superconductors to laptops, and smartphones. Without rare earths, the technology revolution might grind to a standstill.

China dominates the world’s rare earth supply and supplies 80 percent of the rare earths imported by the U.S. What’s more, China has threatened to use rare earth exports as leverage in the trade wars with the U.S.

But like uranium, rare earths are only part of the story. Although the U.S. imports minerals and metals from around the world, China is the primary supplier of about 26 of the 48 minerals that our country is import-dependent.

China also controls many of the materials like cobalt (used in batteries for electric vehicles) that are critical to our country’s economy. In industrial competition or in a trade war, where leverage matters, this gives China a big advantage.

While China has made minerals production a strategic priority, we’ve done the opposite. Mining in the U.S. has been pushed to the margins. As recently as the early 1990s, the U.S. was the world’s largest producer of rare earths. Today, we have just one rare earth mine remaining and it must ship its ore to China for processing. 

For that matter, there are only two operating uranium mines left in the U.S., whereas there had once been dozens of mines as recently as 1980 when America was the world’s leading uranium producer.

 The U.S. mining industry, however, is saddled with regulations and a permitting process so burdensome that many of the minerals and metals that are essential for our economy and national security must be imported from overseas.

Here in the U.S., it typically takes seven to 10 years for a mining company to obtain a federal mining permit, whereas it takes two to three years in other countries with comparable environmental standards. Proposed legislation to update and improve the permitting and regulatory process has been stalled in Congress for years. 

Now is the time for decisive action to encourage development of domestic mineral supplies. The race is on to secure the supply chains for the technologies of tomorrow — our national security and economic well-being are at stake. 

J. Winston Porter, Ph.D., is a former assistant administrator of the EPA. He is an energy and environmental consultant based in Atlanta.

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