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Critical metals take center stage in border dispute: The Kuril Islands and Rhenium

According to a recent article in the Russian daily Pravda, Russia finds itself locked in a territorial dispute that is becoming increasingly acute. The conflict over the group of four islands, which Russia calls the “Southern Kurils” and Japan calls the “Northern Territories, is the reason why Japan and Russia never signed a peace treaty after World War II.

It’s interesting that, for Pravda, one of the factors contributing to the recent escalation is that the Kuril Islands are home to the world’s largest deposit of rhenium. While rhenium, our metal of the month for February, is a little-known specialty metal, it should not come as a surprise that it is becoming a matter of national security for Japan – a country not overly rich in mineral resources that is pursuing an aggressive global strategy to gain access to critical metals and minerals.

After all, rhenium, an extremely scarce specialty metal that is indispensible for the aviation, as well as chemical industry, has all the makings of a critical mineral. This fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Institute for Defense Analyses, which dedicated an entire appendix to the metal in its “Reconfiguration of the National Defense Stockpile” Report to Congress in April of 2009.

Rhenium can only be recovered of a byproduct of molybdenum or copper refinement. The fact that presently, only one of three molybdenum roasting facilities in the U.S. is equipped to capture the metal, and consequently our import dependency for rhenium currently stands at 86%, makes us highly vulnerable to supply disruptions, particularly given that nations like China and Kazakhstan top the list of our foreign supplier nations.

Japan appears to have read the writing on the wall when it comes to the national security implications associated with critical non-fuel metals and minerals – a mindset we have yet to see develop in the United States.