A little-known nuclear agency, designated as Chile’s lithium watchdog 38 years ago during the military dictatorship, holds the keys to unlocking the country’s massive reserves amid a nascent electric-car boom.
The Chilean Nuclear Energy Commission, or CCHEN by its Spanish initials, authorizes lithium quotas and exports in a throwback to a 1979 decision to declare lithium “strategic” because it was thought to be a key element in nuclear processes.
While that’s no longer the case, the government has no plans to remove CCHEN from lithium permitting even as authorities work on a new code for an industry struggling to keep up with growing demand from rechargeable batteries. More investor-friendly rules in Argentina have lured some interest away from Chile.
Jaime Alee, a professor who heads the Lithium Innovation Center in Santiago, sees no technical reason why lithium should be considered strategic or why CCHEN should control its extraction and sales. Lithium is found in several countries, but only Chile and Bolivia require a special authorization, he said.
“It makes no sense,” Alee said. “But changing its status means changing the law, which could take from three to four years and there’s no time for that. So the most practical option is to work with what we have.”
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