Rare Earth Metals, Uranium And Thorium: Commonly Found Together And All Desired By China

by Jack Lifton on November 20, 2009 · 1 comment

in China, In The Media, News Analysis, Nuclear Energy, Rare Earths, Thorium

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Last weekend I listened to an audio clip broadcast on Australia’s ABC Radio National, and I think, if you have an interest in investing in the development of rare earth supply chain dynamics, you should also listen to it. You can listen to the show via the clip below:

[wpaudio url=”http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2009/11/bst_20091113_0643.mp3″ ” text=”Rare Earth Metals – Nov 14, 2009″]

I’m certain that the above clip was edited out from another, 45 minute show that also ran on ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing program over the weekend, and was a good survey of the current issues in the market fundamentals (i.e. the current supply and demand situation) of the rare earth metals. You can listen to the show via the clip below:

[wpaudio url=”http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2009/11/bbg_20091115.mp3″ text=”Rare Earths and China – Nov 15, 2009″]

The first clip cited above, helped me to understand why the Chinese mining industry is interested in the Australian miner, Arafura Resources, which I do not mention in my surveys because, although it is one of the very few “listed” companies with a rare earths deposit (known as Nolan’s Bore), it is, to the best of my understanding, not ready to go forward due to open issues with its “metallurgy.” This is the term used in mining to describe the chemical engineering processes needed, to economically extract the desired minerals from the mined ore concentrates, and then to separate them into their constituent elements in a form in which they can be further processed to usable materials. The main issue is always economics. The metallurgy must finally result in products that will sell for more at that point, than they cost to produce. It is very important to note that an environmental issue can have an economic impact on a project, that makes the ultimate material cost prohibitive, even if the chemical processes involved do not on their own make the costs prohibitive.

This comes out strongly in both of the clips above as the Lynas Chairman, Mr. Nick Curtis, alludes to the problems caused for Arafura Resources by the fact that their Nolan’s Bore ore body contains both of the naturally radioactive elements, uranium and thorium.

An environmental commentator then uses inflammatory words such as “dirty” and “dangerous” to describe what he calls the historical mining of the rare earths (anywhere), through their extraction from formations known to geologists as monazite mineral sands, in which, as Mr. Curtis points out correctly, thorium is always found along with the rare earths.

The commentator goes on to tell us that the citizenry of Darwin, Australia is “concerned” with a plan by Arafura Resources to “dump” rare earth processing residues from Nolan’s Bore containing “yellowcake: ( a common name for the yellow uranium oxide U3O8-containing ore known as carnotite when found alone) on an island in Darwin Harbor. He doesn’t mention, or if he does, I didn’t note it, the final destination of the thorium from the Nolan’s Bore operations.

I’d like to point out to my readers that I didn’t know of the Darwin island scheme or that the radioactive residues were such an issue, until I heard the ABC commentator and Mr. Curtis’ comments during the last two days, but I must admit that I take a different view from theirs.

Perspective is the key to objectivity. So, what is the Chinese perspective on all of this?

China is very interested in uranium for current use and in thorium for future use in nuclear reactors to produce electricity for civilian use without the need to burn fossil fuels. In addition China seeks uranium for its military programs. China last year instructed its domestic rare earth processing plants to hold all thorium produced as a byproduct for government use. This has always been the requirement in China for any uranium produced anywhere.

I’m certain that the current Chinese minority shareholder in Arafura Resources would be willing to buy and export to China all of the uranium or thorium produced in Australia by Arafura Resources (or anyone else) at market price.

I am not confusing China and Chinese mining companies here; they are one and the same with regard to their primary focus on growing China’s economy. I do not see any need to name individual Chinese entities at this point in the discussion.

Mr. Curtis and well known Australian rare earth expert, Dudley Kingsnorth, who once worked for Lynas, both point out that Australian monazite deposits were the source of 25% of the world’s rare earths in the 1970s and 1980s and that the thorium (and uranium?) contained in them caused their then refiner, France’s Rhodia, SA, to ultimately transfer their processing where possible to China, where it was said on the program that environmental controls were less stringent.

What was not said, was that until the Lynas refinery being built in Malaysia is ready – in perhaps 2-3 years – any ore concentrates produced in Australia by anyon,e will have to go to China also, even those produced by Lynas, should anyone want to refine them. Mr. Curtis indicated that Lynas’ ore does not contain thorium. What he failed to note was that even if it does contain thorium and uranium, those elements will be recovered either in China or in Malaysia.

What also was not said by anyone on the show, was that neither of the Australian deposits has significant amounts of the higher atomic numbered rare earths, dysprosium, terbium, or europium. Interestingly enough, the show mentioned those rare earth elements frequently, but failed to mention that they are not present in Australian deposits in any significant amount. The “heavies” come only from China today, but I think they will soon be coming from Canada, the U.S. and the Republic of South Africa.

I’m going to discuss the topic of the relative importance and the relative value of rare earth deposits in a lengthy article to appear here at The Jack Lifton Report next week, after I discuss “who’s going to win the race to be the first to produce the heavy rare earths outside of China?” this coming weekend, November 22, at the Hard Assets Conference in San Francisco. Come by and talk to me at the expert round table there or, if you can’t, be sure to catch the article here next Monday.

The linkage of the rare earths, thorium, and uranium needs to be taken into account by those who are looking to produce rare earths or invest in their production.

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1 Tim Starns November 20, 2009 at 4:54 AM

Well I certainly wish I had the chance to come to SF to meet and speak with you. , but I will just have to wait for your next article about who’s going to win the race to produce HREEs outside of China. I’ve been placing my bets.
And I understand you’re doing an interview with Gareth Hatch. I’ll be looking forward to that as well.
Maybe if you’re ever up around Billings, Montana, and might possibly entertain the idea of flyfishing on the Big Horn River, I’d be pleased to row the driftboat while you catch the trout. And of course, I’d get to ask you for about a million opinions.

Tim Starns

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