Stockpile Follies

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Some of the Pentagon's zinc stockpile / DoD photo

History is a video, but policy-makers and academics too often see it as a snapshot. The latest example involves all the heavy breathing due to China’s supposed choke hold on so-called rare-earth elements like cerium, lanthanum and, neodymium vital to 21st Century technologies.

A report released Friday warns that U.S. leadership in new-energy areas like electric vehicles and solar cells could be jeopardized without adequate domestic sources of such materials. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., introduced a bill last week that would compel the federal government to assure such materials remain available. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy is on the case.

The Pentagon has long tried to deal with such challenges through its National Defense Stockpile, a World War II-era creation designed to ensure key raw materials would be available for production during a prolonged war. I first poked around the stockpile nearly 20 years ago, and found it primed and ready to fight — World War I.

It included 150,000 tons of tannin, used to tan cavalry saddles and knapsacks; 3.3 million ounces of quinine, an anti-malaria compound supplanted years ago by superior medicines; 22 million pounds of mica, used as windows in camp stoves and to insulate radio vacuum tubes; and 7 million pounds of thorium nitrate, a radioactive mineral that glows when hot — the key to keeping those kerosene lamps glowing brightly around the old campfire. Since the early 1990s, the Pentagon has declared more than 99 percent of the stockpile irrelevant and ordered it sold, generating about $6.5 billion in sales.

But despite all those sales, apparently not much has changed. In 2008, the National Research Council concluded that “the design, structure, and operation of the National Defense Stockpile render it ineffective in responding to modern needs and threats.” The world simply moves too fast now, with interlocking economies and supply chains ill-suited to the creation of government-managed stockpiles. “The Department of Defense appears not to fully understand its needs for specific materials or to have adequate information on their supply,” the NRC added.

Part of the Pentagon's mercury stash / DoD photo

Last Friday’s report, from the American Physical Society and the Materials Research Society, wisely doesn’t call for stockpiling rare-earth minerals and other key commodities. Such a strategy, it warns, “can act as disincentives to innovation.” Instead, it wants the nation to get a firmer grip on where and how such material can be obtained, wants to encourage the development of substitutes, and urges more recycling of tossed-out cell phones and other electronics. It specifically noted that its recommendations don’t apply to the Pentagon.

Nonetheless, it’s a safe bet that two decades from now, the stuff we’re fretting over today will seem as foreign as the thorium nitrate needed to keep those kerosene lamps glowing.