Rare Earth Metals Production: Possible Political Implications for National Security

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Rare earth metal content in some defense items. Source: J.A. Green & Company. Reprinting of this graphic is given through written permission only; please contact [email protected] for additional information.

Possible National Security Problems?

Mr. Matt Zolnowski, Policy Analyst from J.A. Green & Company, a business which lobbies the United States government for policy changes on behalf of manufacturers and defense contractors, explains to Decoded Science:

The extreme concentration of the rare earths production in a single country, namely China, is just one part of a complex problem. In addition to mining, Chinese companies dominate the intermediate processing steps of separation to oxide, reduction to metal, production of rare earth alloys, and manufacturing of rare earth magnets.

While concentration of supply and downstream manufacturing are worrisome, this concern has escalated to a significant national security risk due to the imposition and tightening of export and production controls that have limited material availability to the defense industrial base.

For example, during the maritime tension between China and Japan in the East China Sea in late 2010, Chinese exports of rare earths to Japan, the United States, and the European Union were ceased; at this time, some defense contractors were unable to obtain rare earths — at any price.

Although this ‘silent embargo’ was lifted, China subsequently tightened its exports through the summer of 2011, and defense contractors then turned to stockpiling rare earths so they could continue to meet contract requirements.

Rare Earth Elements: Raising Awareness

According to Mr. Zolnowski, it is important to be aware of this issue and of the possible consequences.

Raising awareness is absolutely essential. Many private companies are afraid or unwilling to speak-out on these issues because so much of their future growth or their raw material supply depends upon Chinese customers or exporters. In that sense, rare earth elements are no different than cyber security or counterfeit electronic parts, and this is why governments, who have responsibility for maintaining public goods like national security, need to be involved.

If we are going to address this comprehensive problem though, the solution needs to be equally comprehensive. Unfortunately, some of the proposed public policy remedies have focused on just one aspect, to the detriment of others. We will need to address new mining operations and processing, as well as our manufacturing base and end-of-life recycling.

These points raised by Mr. Zolnowski illustrate the ways in which political issues such as national security may have several aspects to be taken into account – and that science is surely one of them.

Sources

Hedrick, J.B. Rare earths in selected US defense applications. (2013). 40th Forum of the Geology of the Industrial Minerals. Accessed June 11, 2013.

Pui-Kwan, T. China’s rare-earth industry: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report. (2011). Accessed June 11, 2013.

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