Today we’re starting a semi-regular series called “Top 5.” You may be asking “Top 5 what?” We will be periodically examining some general background of the larger issues we analyze by looking at major characteristics of the things of which we speak. That might sound vague, but that’s because it is intended to be a flexible device. For example, we may take snapshots of the top 5 oil producers, top 5 reserve holders of certain minerals, top 5 provinces currently negotiating water treaties involving hydroelectric damming of Himalayan water sources, or anything else we think might be helpful to you and for our own research. And we of course welcome suggestions for top 5-style explorations that would provide useful background to any natural security topics.
With all this in mind, today I am examining the top 5 countries that export rare earth elements (REEs) to the United States. These elements—used in products ranging from catalytic converters (pdf) and mp3 players to precision-guided munitions (pdf)—are commonly grouped together because of their chemical similarities, but the name is confusing because they’re not particularly rare. I am choosing to use the term “rare earth elements” instead of “rare earth metals” or “rare earth minerals” because it is the preferred term of the National Academy of Sciences, which issued an excellent report in 2008 entitled Managing Materials for a Twenty-first Century Military. This report notes two different series of elements are often included under the banner of REEs: the lanthanide series (atomic numbers 57 to 71) and the actinide series (atomic numbers 89 to 103), along with individual elements scandium and yttrium. But not all sources (pdf) include the actinide series when talking about REEs. We will keep our focus away from the actinide series for the sake of this post, since the actinides include the radioactive elements, and radioactivity raises special complications.
Below are the top five exporters of lanthanide series REEs and REE compounds (including scandium and yttrium) to the United States for the years 2004 to 2007 (the most recent data available).
Perhaps the most important natural security takeaway is that DoD has taken notice of the REE controversy and is beginning to study its supply chain security. In addition, Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Congressman Mike Coffman (R-CO) inserted provisions into the FY 2010 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) calling for DoD to report to Congress on vulnerabilities in its REE supply chain by April 2010. President Barack Obama just signed the final version of the NDAA into law, so a report is due to the Armed Services Committees of both houses by April 1 of next year. Hopefully it will contain a bit more detail about REE supply chains; as this little exercise proved, it can be difficult to piece together good information on rare earths.