Thursday, April 19, 2018

Japan Discovers Rare Earth Trove but Cannot Contain Fukushima


Japan recently announced discovery of a trove of rare earths deep under the water. News coverage of the discovery promised new technology that would extract the coveted elements from the mud under deep waters:
Takahiro Takenouchi (April 17, 2018). Centuries worth of rare earth elements found in Japan's EEZ. The Asahi Shimbun http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201804170045.html

Massive deposits of rare earth minerals that could meet global demand for centuries have been found in Japan's exclusive economic zone off the Ogasawara island chain 2,000 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, researchers said. The deposits, estimated at 16 million tons, lie at a depth of 5,700 meters about 250 km south of Minami-Torishima island in the Pacific Ocean.
This is a strategic find because China currently controls the end product distribution of rare earths.

That is a problem for the US, as noted in a Dec 16, 2013 report produced by the US Congressional Research Service addressing the global rare earth supply chain https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R41347.pdf

The report's lead author, Marc Humphries explains in the preface:
The concentration of production of rare earth elements (REEs) outside the United States raises the important issue of supply vulnerability. REEs are used for new energy technologies and national security applications. Two key questions of interest to Congress are: (1) Is the United States vulnerable to supply disruptions of REEs? (2) Are these elements essential to U.S. national security and economic well-being?

China controls end-distribution because processing there is cheaper. That is because rare-earth mining and refining are very dirty and hazardous processes, and China doesn't meet the highest standards for reducing hazards. The adverse impacts of rare earth mining in China were examined by the Guardian here: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/rare-earth-mining-china-social-environmental-costs

One of the main problems with mining and refining rare earths is that they are often found with thorium, which is radioactive and decays into unstable elements (https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/substances/toxsubstance.asp?toxid=121). 

Rare earth mining and refining worsen problems of radioactive waste. I wonder how Japan will handle the radioactive waste problem with rare earth mining?

Meanwhile Fukushima Daiichi really is puffing today. I noticed the uptick in emissions yesterday but wanted to establish whether there was a trend toward more visible emissions. I would say yes and note that the weather conditions are 73 degrees Fahrenheit, 40% precipitation, 70% humidity, and no wind.