Thursday, June 6, 2019

Materials Supply in a Global Economy:

Implications for Nuclear and Wind Power

One issue that, until lately, has gotten little attention, is that of the global supply chain for some of the materials that are essential to the continued smooth operation of things that are essential to our well being and our way of life--such as the power plants that supply our electricity.

Recently, people have begun to think more about such issues.  The U.S. Department of Commerce (USDOC) has just published a report on developing a strategy to ensure secure and reliable supplies of critical materials.  The report identifies 35 minerals that are viewed as critical to U.S. economic and national security.  The U.S. is currently dependent on other countries for more than 50% of its demand for 29 of the 35 materials.  Among the 29, two are important to the energy industry--uranium for nuclear power plants, and rare earths for wind turbines.

While this initially seems frightening, the situation is really more complex.  Among the issues that need to be considered are whether the minerals come from close allies or from adversaries, whether there are sources in the U.S. that could be developed, or whether there are other alternatives. 

Although uranium is highlighted in the report, at present, 33% of our uranium comes from Canada and 19%, from Australia, both countries with which we have a strong positive relationship.  Therefore, the dependency is not as alarming as for other minerals upon which we depend.

The bigger problem, it seems to me, is with the rare earths, where 78% of our supply comes from China.  In fact, recent articles have indicated that China is making it clear that they are contemplating using the threat of cutting exports of rare earths or imposing tariffs on them as a bargaining tool. 

Rare earths are actually not so rare.  Rather, they are highly dispersed, so they are difficult to mine economically in most cases.  And they are used nowadays in more ways than many of us realize, from a variety of consumer products, including smartphones, televisions, cameras and light bulbs, to military equipment, to windmill turbines, so any extended market disruption could have serious effects on many aspects of our economy. 

The USDOC study is looking for ways to address the need for rare earths and other materials.  Some of the measures mentioned in the report include extracting rare earths from coal refuse and acid mine drainage and developing other alloys to replace some rare earths.  Efforts are also underway to explore the possibility of extracting rare earths, as well as uranium and other elements, from seawater. 

In the long run, it may also be possible to develop more mined sources for rare earths outside of China.  One problem in doing this, however, is that the rare earths, because they are so dispersed, produce a lot of mining waste, and many communities will not want such mines near them. 

Some analysts believe that China will not impose restrictions on the supply of rare earths yet, for fear of triggering a global initiative to find and develop alternative supplies.  However, the threat looms, and the search for ways to reduce our vulnerability should be stepped up before we face a crisis. 

In the meantime, what are the implications for nuclear and wind power, and what should we be doing?  In the case of nuclear power, I am not as worried, because so much of our uranium supply comes from strong allies.  Furthermore, some of the advanced nuclear reactor designs that are under development may be able to burn more of the uranium, or may use depleted uranium or thorium.  Nevertheless, efforts to increase uranium production in the U.S. would provide additional assurance of supply. 

In the case of wind turbines, the situation is more complicated, particularly since there is a strong push to increase the use of renewables in the U.S. and elsewhere, and much of that increase is coming from wind power.  One obvious way to address this problem would be to develop alternative alloys for use in wind turbines. 

Another measure is to assure that we do not rely too much on any one technology for our electricity supply.  This is a policy that is beneficial for a number of reasons, and has been discussed before in this blog.  Such a policy means that, as we move toward a cleaner energy supply, we should be sure to keep that energy supply diversified with a balanced mix of solar, wind and nuclear power plants.