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Misharin, Governor of the Middle Urals, will create a thorium bomb

Misharin, Governor of the Middle Urals, will create a thorium bomb

04.07.2011 — Analysis

Head of the Sverdlovsk Region, Alexander Misharin, intends to launch manufacturing of rare-earth metals in the Middle Urals. The new operations will be based on radioactive monazite sands that have been stored 200 kilometers away from Ekaterinburg for fifty years. Experts are very skeptical about the governor's idea: the ambitious costly project promises no lucrative profits; rather it is going to cause a lot of problems due to the storage of hazardous radioactive materials. The environmentalists assured the "RusBusinessNews" columnist that the regional authorities, taking advantage of increasing prices for rare-earth metals, are interested in skimming the cream without a second thought about future.

The idea to build a monazite concentrate processing factory in Krasnoufimsk, in the west of the Sverdlovsk Region, has been discussed for more than ten years. In 1996, the radioactive sand, which was brought during the time of nuclear rush, was given into the ownership of the region. The government started to think what they were going to do with it.

The wooden storage facilities, where the deadly "gift" was stored, fell into disrepair; radioactive dust got into the air. According to the environmentalist Vasily Khachin, there were several alternate solutions of the problem. The sand could be sold (foreign companies offered good money for monazite) or dumped into a quarry in the Rezh Region and concreted over. Governor Eduard Rossel and the Federal Ministry for Nature plunged into a vain discussion and, eventually, as V. Khachin puts it, buried the problem. The government had neither will nor money to put at least any option into effect.

In the meantime, the interior of the RF Ministry for Atomic Energy (MinAtom) produced a project contemplating extraction of rare-earth elements (REE) from the monazite sand. In 1999, after a number of the laboratory studies, the Chepetsky Mechanical Plant, OJSC, attempted to process five tons of radioactive sand as a pilot manufacturing project. The results were disappointing: The output of rare-earth elements was under 20%, whereas the price per kilogram of carbonate was equal to $5.4 (while China offered a kilogram for $2 at that time). The gamma-radiation level at working stations exceeded the allowed limits almost 9 times, and the Chepetsky plant refused to participate in the project. However, the experts of the Ministry for Atomic Energy deemed the experiments as successful, accusing their originators of inaccurate reporting and application of "improper" technology.

In 2001, Alexander Rumyantsev, RF Minister for Atomic Energy, approved the feasibility study justifying investment in monazite concentrate processing facilities. The initial investment in the project was estimated at $23 million. Experts calculated that the factory would be able to process 82 thousand tons of monazite concentrate within 16 years, bringing the profit of $462 million.

The factory was planned not far from the monazite warehouses to avoid expenses on transportation of radioactive sand: the nuclear specialists estimated that it would cost $10 million to make special-purpose containers for transportation. The decision was also underpinned by the fact that the Sverdlovsk Region has manufacturing nuclear-power engineering facilities that separate rare-earth elements for further production of high-energy magnets applied in electronics, car making and unconventional power engineering.

The MinAtom project was also buried under words. Vladimir Smetannikov, Chief Designer of Power Engineering Research and Design Institute (NIKIET), repined that the Russians cannot work fast; so they let the moment pass. He thinks that processing of monazite sand is the only advanced project that will bring Russia back to leading position in the high-technology sector. The experts think that today, fortune again favors Russia: having monopolized the market for rare-earth metals in 2010, China started increasing the strategic stock of these raw materials, instigation unprecedented advance in prices. For example, neodymium oxide that used to cost $35 per kilogram in 2007 is selling now for $400. Russia accounts for 22% of the world reserves of raw materials for production of rare-earth elements.

The favorable price situation encouraged Russian officials to adopt the target program - The Development of Production of Rare and Rare-Earth Metals for 2012-2015 and till 2020. Alexander Misharin, taking the governor's office after Eduard Rossel, asked legislators to include the project for monazite concentrate processing into the program. Obviously, he was motivated by solely commercial considerations: The price of the products that could be received from the Krasnoufimsk sand had reached $5-7 billion by 2011.

The experts do not share the enthusiasm about the commercial component of the project. The Soviet Union used to produce about 9 thousand tons of rare-earth elements, part of which was used in the country, while the other stock was supplied to other countries. Within the last 15 years, according to Vadim Vyatkin, head of the high-energy magnet production at the Ural Electrical and Mechanical Factory, Federal State Unitary Enterprise, Russian enterprises have not produced even a kilogram of rare-earth metals for magnet manufacturing. Alexander Rylov, Chief Engineer of Uralredmet, OJSC, says that the company has no orders from Russian manufacturers: There are very few rare-earth element consumers in the country. On the other hand, export supplies are risky: China can drop prices for rare-earth elements in the same way as it did it in the 1990s, making actually all the world's manufacturers go to the wall. Initially, the Russian products will not already be competitive, as the Lovozersky Mining and Processing Factory - the main supplier of raw materials for production of rare-earth metals, mines loparite from the depth of 1,000 meters, and operations related to radioactive monazite sand require huge expenses in terms of safety.

The main problem is that after extraction of rare-earth elements there is still thorium left that needs special-purpose containers for its storage and containers for monazite sand transportation. Furthermore, the area of contamination will be much larger. The pilot processing of 5 tons of monazite at the Chepetsky mechanical plant resulted in 60 tons of liquid radioactive waste products that are stored in barrels in Krasnoufimsk. Expenses on environmental protection will increase substantially: Instead of warehouses that are deemed as moderately hazardous, the Sverdlovsk Region will have highly dangerous storage facilities.

Vasily Khachin assumes that here we have a very Russian tradition: to create a lot of problems instead of solving the one of them. Officials, being under the spell of the price of rare-earth metals, do not want to think about the future. However, the common sense suggests that in 30-40 years the demand for monazite concentrate is going to be much higher that it is today, as Japan and the USA are actively working on technologies that would allow using thorium in the nuclear power industry.

Alexander Rylov is sure that the destiny of radioactive sands must be tied up to the plans of the Rosatom Corporation: if nuclear power engineering enterprises are going to deal with thorium energy in the near future, the monazite processing factory must be built. If this research vector has been abandoned, the Krasnoufimsk sands should be left in peace.

At the same time, the experts have no illusions: Russia tends to ignore any common sense; therefore, the factory, most likely, will be built; officials will skim the cream off the rare-earth metal sales; the environmental issue will be put into a corner, while the population of the Sverdlovsk Region will be trembling in fear looking at the barrels with liquid radioactive waste.

Vladimir Terletsky

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