Guest column: U.S. should stay ahead on nuclear

Rare earth elements (REE) are essential components of many high tech defense-related equipment, as well as such consumer products as high performance electric motors, wind turbines, GPS systems, satellite imaging, night vision goggles, smartphones and flat screen TVs.

For the same reasons Candidate Trump cited as causing the decline of American manufacturing and the loss of U.S. jobs, China is now in a position to cut off the USA’s REE supplies if President Trump gets too pushy on trade and economic issues—or anything else.

In 1995, the Clinton administration’s rule-making forced the two remaining U.S. REE suppliers to go out of business. Consequently they transferred their remaining assets to China thus making it the world’s only large-scale REE supplier. This is inevitable whenever a government abdicates its responsibility to serve the public interest and instead turns everything over to the private sector – corporate survival becomes more important than either national security or local high paying jobs.

One reason why we won the Cold War was that we possessed superior “high” technologies. It is unclear that we could repeat that victory today because the same policies responsible for the actions taken by the above-mentioned Chinese entrepreneurs and U.S. CEOs have eroded our leadership in other key industries as well.

Of those, nuclear power is probably the most important: Affordable fossil fuels will be exhausted well within one human lifetime and we can’t power a technological civilization with windmills and solar panels — big things like steel mills, synthetic fuel factories, water desalination plants, trains, farm tractors, trucks and ships require steady, reliable, power and batteries can’t make up for such sources’ “intermittency.”

It is currently impossible to develop a genuinely sustainable (breeder based) nuclear fuel cycle either here in the USA or most other western countries because we/they can’t even think about building reactors containing “undenatured” fissile anywhere within them. (The U.S. Navy exempts itself from that rule).

To date, about the only good thing I see about Messrs. Trump and Perry’s ascension is that they might be willing to ignore some of the nonsensical international rules, customs, agreements etc., currently rendering an appropriate U.S. nuclear renaissance impossible.

Unlike their predecessors they might be able to see that it would be in the USA’s/their best interests to encourage Idaho National Laboratory’s Research and Development experts to undertake the kind of projects that Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Alvin Weinberg oversaw fifty years ago. After all, energy has been the world’s biggest ”business” for over a century and the way it’s generated needs a complete overhaul ASAP.

There are lots of other business opportunities too – one of the world’s largest unexploited REE/thorium ore deposits is only about 70 miles due north of the INL.

Siemer is a former Idaho National Laboratory consulting scientist.

Siemer is a former Idaho National Laboratory consulting scientist.