A couple of the biggest quandaries facing the United States: a) It relies on China for almost all of the rare earth metals that are vital to its economy, and; b) It must figure out how to produce reliable, round-the-clock, low carbon energy.
Wouldn't it be great if the country could clobber both of those birds with one stone?
That's what a proposed U.S. Senate bill aims to do. The new National Rare Earth Cooperative Act of 2014 would foster development of a domestic industry to mine and process rare earth metals, which are key materials in a wide spectrum of goods including missiles, radar, cars, wind turbines, LED light bulbs, computers and smartphones, among many others.
"The bipartisan National Rare Earth Cooperative Act grants private rare earth suppliers and end-users with an opportunity to jointly set up a rare earth refining cooperative in America," said the two sponsoring senators - Missouri Republican Roy Blunt and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin - in separate press releases.
Rare earths are not rare. The U.S. has ample deposits. But one challenge in processing them is that the minerals that contain them often also include thorium, a mildly radioactive substance that would require special handing. (For that and other historic reasons related to sloppy operations, the rare earth business left the U.S. a couple decades ago, and flourished in China.)
That's where the double act kicks in: The bill would provide federal storage for thorium, which as regular SmartPlanet readers might know, is a potential nuclear wonder fuel that could replace today's uranium.
Reactors such as "molten salt reactors" designed to optimize thorium's advantages would leave much less waste than conventional reactors, would be more difficult for any potential bomb makers to misuse, would pose little to no meltdown risk and would generate electricity far more efficiently and thus less expensively. They could also provide heat for high temperature industrial processes such as cement and steelmaking (today's reactors aren't hot enough), replacing fossil fuels. Thorium could also provide a portion of the same benefits in conventional reactors.
Thus, thorium could help usher in a nuclear renaissance that would enable nuclear generation - a non-CO2 emitter - to play a major role in a low carbon economy.
The U.S. Department of Defense would play a major role in the the cooperative, given the importance of rare earth metals in weapons. (I've skimmed through the bill, and it does not seem to propose a role for the Department of Energy.)
With the bill, the two senators echo former U.S. Congressman and Pennsylvania Democrat Joe Sestak as politicians who recognize the potential of thorium fuel. As I wrote last summer, Sestak advocates alternative nuclear energy such as thorium fuel and high-temperature reactors. He will likely run for Senate in 2016. Among unelected government officials, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz supports using high temperature reactors for industrial heat.
Senator Blunt's sponsorship from Missouri almost certainly reflects an interest in tapping that state's known rare earth reserves. West Virginia's Senator Manchin is known for his support of coal and natural gas, so his backing of a thorium initiative adds a new twist to his energy position.
(reference to Energy Secretary Moniz added around 9:20 a.m. PST Feb. 11).