Lithium can be obtained through two isotopic forms: Li-7, which is used in electric car batteries, and Li-6, which is used in nuclear fusion to produce tritium; to control the chemistry and avoid corrosion in the primary circuit of the fission reactors - the PWR (Pressurized Water Reactor) - and for the small 300 MW SMR (Small Modular Reactor) reactors, which use deuterium and tritium cores. It will also be required for the future fusion reactors sponsored by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, and Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and owner of the energy company Terra Power, a project in which the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) collaborates and whose process is very advanced, according to the latest experiments carried out at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Li-6 is also a component in the manufacture of hydrogen bombs. This dual use of lithium is usually hidden in information that praises the energy transition and the democratic management made possible by solar and wind energy.
Chilean law limits concessions to private individuals to extract “white gold.” Only those who have licenses prior to 1979 are authorized by a decree issued that year in the context of the Cold War, which has not been modified. In 1975 the nuclear terms regulation defined the military interest of the mineral. In 1976, Decree Law number 1557 granted the Chilean Nuclear Energy Commission (CCHEN) the ability to control the trade and collection of materials of nuclear interest and declared their public utility. In 1979, through Decree Law number 2886, lithium was considered a reserve under the supervision of the CCHEN. In 2008, a report from this organization highlighted the importance of lithium in the commercial process of nuclear fusion (1 and 2).
Lithium exports must have authorization from the CCHEN. However, according to a report by the Center for Journalistic Investigation (CIPER), created in 2007 in Santiago, the CCHEN handed over 81,000 hectares of the Salar de Atacama to the company Soquimich (SQM) in 1995 for the “exclusive and exclusive” exploitation of lithium. and its isotopic derivatives (Li-7 and Li-6) until 2030. This company was controlled by Julio Ponce Lerou, son-in-law of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was manager of the Production Promotion Corporation (CORFO) and former president of Endesa among other large companies (3).
To justify the export (shipments were made to countries such as India and North Korea, which have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or have left it) SQM claimed that its final use was batteries and the glass industries, ceramic and aluminum. This was the CIPER version that was replicated by SQM in an information note dated March 11, 2016. “It is not true that SQM exported lithium products to North Korea. There are two exports to South Korea to the port of Busan that were erroneously reflected as being directed to North Korea in the export records (the numerical codes of both countries are very similar)... South Korea is an important market for lithium consumption. for batteries and SQM maintains a long commercial relationship with different companies located in this country. SQM and its subsidiaries do not carry out commercial activities of any nature in North Korea.”
Regarding the use of Chilean lithium for the nuclear sector, the information note added: “The commercial control carried out by SQM of sales in the different markets, identifying the end customers and the final use of the products, allows it to affirm that the exported lithium is not "It has been used in processes aimed at nuclear fusion, as established by CCHEN standards."
CIPER ratified the serious failures of the CCHEN and the National Customs Service, in their work of supervising the exploitation and export of Chilean lithium, and assured that exports to North Korea were registered in Customs in May 2005 and in March 2012, with a total of 106 tons of lithium carbonate. SQM's position and CIPER's responses can be seen in a document signed by its director Mónica González.
Chilean companies, SQM guarantees, operate under a comprehensive lease contract with the State that prohibits the dual use of lithium. In any case, whether or not this dual use has occurred in Chile or in any of the producing countries, a great paradox would arise regarding the concept of "energy transition." When Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, commits to promoting renewable energies in Chile (including “green” hydrogen and lithium) with a contribution of 216.5 million euros, and the World Bank allocates 150 million dollars to the same objective, it avoids monitoring the destination of the metal for atomic uses, new technologies for SMR reactors and the commercialization of future nuclear fusion plants. The European Commission recognized in its environmental taxonomy (classification system for sustainable energy sources) that nuclear energy was a “green” technology, at least until 2045. That is, lithium can serve the development of solar and wind technologies ( soft and decentralized energies) and at the same time be a strategic element for the new reactivation of nuclear energy that had stalled (apparently) as a result of the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents.
The Pentagon was already interested in Chilean lithium since the 1970s through US companies such as Foote Minerals Company (an objective that increased during the dictatorship) and in controlling the large reserves of the Salar de Atacama during this century through companies such as Albemarle. Rockwood, which has the concession of 16,000 hectares of the Salar de Atacama.
This dual use would explain how the atomic energy and renewable energy lobbies could be involved as Siamese brothers in the exploitation of lithium. Nuclear development, supported by strategic materials such as lithium, would accelerate the decarbonization of the economy with small SMR reactors; future fusion reactors (so-called SPARC); the new uranium exploitation (4) and the operation to extend until 2050 the life of most of the more than 400 reactors currently operating in the world (with the exception of German and, predictably, Spanish) denuclearization.
We are faced with a cynical vision of the so-called “circular economy”. A fallacious transition where the same corporations that monopolized coal, gas and nuclear energy would continue to dominate. No emerging energy technology has managed to retire the previous one. The confirmation is the macro prospecting for coal, gas and oil that continues to be authorized in various areas of the planet and the wait for the Arctic thaw to increase it. There is a global anomie in the governance of the transition that has begun to create distrust among broad sectors of civil society, responsible intellectuals, consumer organizations, environmental and ecologist NGOs, as well as scientists committed to climate change mitigation.
(1) Rafael Poveda Bonilla, “Case study on the governance of lithium in Chile”, ECLAC, June 2020. (2) “A look at lithium and nuclear fusion”, Energía Nuclear Latinoamericana, 4/25/2016.
(3)Alberto Arellano, Víctor Carvajal, “Lithium: the scandalous failures of the Nuclear Energy Commission that benefited SQM”, CIPER, 3/10/2016.
(4)The crisis in Niger, the seventh largest producer of uranium in the world, may affect the EU, one of its main suppliers (it supplies 103 reactors in 13 European countries). The Spanish public company ENUSA (National Uranium Company) participated in 1975 in the constitution of the Cominak uranium concentrates company in Niger until it sold its shares in 2021. The French group Areva converted into Orano exploits the main deposits in the desert by Arlit.sant