Skip to main content

Into the Pea Ridge with Thorium

thorium1While doing research on a different topic, I ran into an article about a fellow named James Kennedy. He’s made a splash in Missouri for throwing money at unusual projects, such as building a smelter or buying a failing airport. One of his purchases was a shuttered mine called Pea Ridge.

Why might Kennedy find Pea Ridge a worthwhile investment?

Rare earth elements have become an urgent topic because they are needed in many high-tech products, from cellphones to laptops. They also are essential for cruise missiles, precision-guided munitions and radar systems, underscoring worry in Washington about U.S. dependency on China for strategic needs.

And Pea Ridge is lousy with rare earth metals. (They’re not that rare, actually, just not concentrated enough to be economical to mine in many cases. They inhabit slots 57 through 71 (the lanthanides) on the periodic chart, plus scandium (21) and yttrium (39), which are often found in the same ore deposits.)

But beyond scandium and yttrium, a non rare-earth metal is often found plentifully with them.

While the climate is right for selling Missouri-mined rare earth, Kennedy has encountered an obstacle: what to do with vast quantities of thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive element that is a byproduct of rare earth extraction.

Our old friend thorium! I can think of a thing or two that could be done with it, though I imagine some of Kennedy’s problem lie with the fact that it is not much used at present and not much of a market exists for it.

Energy from thorium has been tried before in the United States and abandoned. But thorium power has many advocates and is undergoing a resurgence in parts of the world, particularly India and China.

Kennedy is proposing that the government become a partner in the enterprise. He believes that building a regional storehouse for thorium is the only means to overcome liability concerns, and he is pressing for legislation that would relax rules that classify thorium along with uranium for purposes of handling.

And then:

China, India, Japan, France, Russia and the U.S. are all currently developing thorium-based reactors, with various degrees of commitment.

India is already well into its thorium fuel development. The country's three-stage nuclear power plan laid out in the '50s was designed specifically to take advantage of India's vast thorium reserves. India has taken a more conventional route, utilizing uranium-catalyzed pressurized heavy water reactors that use thorium compounds as breeder fuel to produce more uranium.

India consequently may not be a good market for Kennedy, but there is at least a suggestion that processing and storing it while getting at the rare metals might be a forward-looking idea – if thorium can gain more traction than, say, fusion.

That’s a little glib, as the thorium fuel cycle is well-understood and nothing really excludes it from consideration. The U.S. experiments with it at Peach Bottom and Fort St. Varain in the seventies were not failures. It’s lack of pickup after that time may have had as much to do with the developed uranium market as any other factor.

But…

Time has a way of catching up with you, though, and sometimes catching you short:

After nearly three years of soaring prices for rare earth metals, with the cost of some rising nearly thirtyfold, the market is rapidly coming back down.

International prices for some light rare earths, like cerium and lanthanum, used in the polishing of flat-screen televisions and the refining of oil, respectively, have fallen by up to two-thirds since August and are still dropping. Prices have declined by roughly one-third since then for highly magnetic rare earths, like neodymium, needed for products like smartphones, computers and large wind turbines.

That’s from yesterday’s news. I don’t understand the world of elements well enough to grasp its ups and downs; still, it may well be that thorium proves to be the most useful item you can extract from Pea Ridge.

Thorium. A good faith effort to make a soft black rock attractive.

Comments

Paul Lindsey said…
Then there is the Bokan Mountain in Alaska, http://ucore.com/projects/bokan-mountain-alaska

and profiled in BusinessWeek:
http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/alaskas-billion-dollar-mountain-10272011.html

Of course, the local conservation groups have their take on it:
http://seacc.org/issues/mining/bokan-mountain-mine

Popular posts from this blog

How Nanomaterials Can Make Nuclear Reactors Safer and More Efficient

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

From the batteries in our cell phones to the clothes on our backs, "nanomaterials" that are designed molecule by molecule are working their way into our economy and our lives. Now there’s some promising work on new materials for nuclear reactors.

Reactors are a tough environment. The sub atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction, neutrons, are great for splitting additional uranium atoms, but not all of them hit a uranium atom; some of them end up in various metal components of the reactor. The metal is usually a crystalline structure, meaning it is as orderly as a ladder or a sheet of graph paper, but the neutrons rearrange the atoms, leaving some infinitesimal voids in the structure and some areas of extra density. The components literally grow, getting longer and thicker. The phenomenon is well understood and designers compensate for it with a …

Why America Needs the MOX Facility

If Isaiah had been a nuclear engineer, he’d have loved this project. And the Trump Administration should too, despite the proposal to eliminate it in the FY 2018 budget.

The project is a massive factory near Aiken, S.C., that will take plutonium from the government’s arsenal and turn it into fuel for civilian power reactors. The plutonium, made by the United States during the Cold War in a competition with the Soviet Union, is now surplus, and the United States and the Russian Federation jointly agreed to reduce their stocks, to reduce the chance of its use in weapons. Over two thousand construction workers, technicians and engineers are at work to enable the transformation.

Carrying Isaiah’s “swords into plowshares” vision into the nuclear field did not originate with plutonium. In 1993, the United States and Russia began a 20-year program to take weapons-grade uranium out of the Russian inventory, dilute it to levels appropriate for civilian power plants, and then use it to produce…

Nuclear Is a Long-Term Investment for Ohio that Will Pay Big

With 50 different state legislative calendars, more than half of them adjourn by June, and those still in session throughout the year usually take a recess in the summer. So springtime is prime time for state legislative activity. In the next few weeks, legislatures are hosting hearings and calling for votes on bills that have been battered back and forth in the capital halls.

On Tuesday, The Ohio Public Utilities Committee hosted its third round of hearings on the Zero Emissions Nuclear Resources Program, House Bill 178, and NEI’s Maria Korsnick testified before a jam-packed room of legislators.


Washingtonians parachuting into state debates can be a tricky platform, but in this case, Maria’s remarks provided national perspective that put the Ohio conundrum into context. At the heart of this debate is the impact nuclear plants have on local jobs and the local economy, and that nuclear assets should be viewed as “long-term investments” for the state. Of course, clean air and electrons …