A safe, prosperous nation requires secure supply chains
The coronavirus pandemic opened Americans’ eyes to the vulnerability of our supply chains and our over-reliance on critical goods from foreign nations. Many people suddenly realized, at the height of the pandemic, that the important medical products we urgently needed – like masks and ventilators – were coming from abroad.
And it is not just medical products. We are dependent on countries that are not reliable trading partners for automotive parts, electronics, pharmaceuticals, and even naturally occurring materials like uranium and critical minerals.
The United States must take strong action to secure our most critical supply chains, and, predominantly through research and development, the Department of Energy (DOE) is playing an important role in the Trump administration’s efforts to do just that. Three areas of recent focus, in which DOE is striving to reduce import reliance, are critical minerals, uranium, and critical infrastructure components.
Critical minerals, including rare earth elements (REEs), are used in electronic products like smart phones, computer and TV screens, and LED lights. But they are also needed to build important defense systems like aircraft and guidance systems, make batteries, and refine crude oil. Currently, the United States imports more than half of the annual consumption of nearly all critical minerals, and we rely on China for 80 percent of REEs. Our lack of domestic supply for these minerals is an economic security threat we must take seriously.
DOE is developing solutions to our critical mineral challenges by finding ways to diversify supply, develop substitutes, and drive recycling and reuse of critical minerals and REEs. One promising project will test the economic viability of extracting these minerals from our coal reserves in Appalachia and the western basins. Our research shows that there may be as much as 10 million tons of critical minerals in these reserves. Another effort underway involves using a highly absorbent material to capture lithium – a key component in batteries – from the working fluid used in geothermal power production. And there are numerous other ongoing projects which we believe in time will greatly reduce America’s reliance on foreign-sourced critical minerals and REEs.
After decades of neglect, the U.S. commercial nuclear sector is at risk of insolvency. Meanwhile, other nations, notably Russia and China, are moving to advance their nuclear capabilities and export their technology to gain increased geopolitical influence. If we are to regain our place as a world leader in nuclear technology, we must start at the beginning of the nuclear fuel cycle and start mining and converting uranium on a wide scale again.
The element uranium not only fuels 95 civilian reactors, providing about 20 percent of U.S. electricity each year, it powers the U.S. Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. Despite its importance, the United States currently relies on imports for 90 percent of its uranium.
Our lack of a significant domestic uranium supply chain threatens energy reliability and national security.
To reverse this trend and reinvigorate the entire nuclear energy industry, DOE recently unveiled the Nuclear Fuel Working Group’s ambitious “Strategy to Restore American Nuclear Energy.” An important component of the working group’s strategy is boosting domestic uranium mining and conversion. To that end, the working group recommended, and the president’s 2021 budget included, funding to establish a domestic uranium reserve. Like the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the domestic uranium reserve will boost the domestic uranium mining industry, support strategic nuclear fuel cycle capabilities, and provide critical assurance of uranium availability in the event of a market disruption.
Finally, we must secure our Nation’s Bulk Power System (BPS) supply chain from the threat of foreign interference. The BPS includes power substations that transmit electricity to the distribution system before it reaches homes and businesses, and the automated industrial control systems that are used in water treatment facilities and manufacturing operations. Our BPS may be vulnerable to malicious advanced cyberattacks by countries like Russia, Iran, and China, threatening the backbone of our nation’s electric power grid.
To meet the challenge, President Trump recently signed an executive order directing DOE to lead an interagency effort aimed at eliminating vulnerabilities within the existing system and developing policies to keep it safe for years to come. The first important action we will take is to prohibit future use of BPS equipment from any country or individual deemed a foreign adversary by our national security experts, the failure of which would pose a risk to the safety of Americans. The department will also review federal energy infrastructure procurement to ensure that safeguarding national security is at the foundation of our policies.
A safe, prosperous nation requires secure supply chains. The Department of Energy is leading the way in protecting our economic and national security by advancing the Trump administration’s policies to produce more critical minerals and REEs, uranium supplies, and BPS components within the United States’ borders.
Dan Brouillette is the United States Secretary of Energy.