USSR sniffing out sources in West for two key metals, CIA reports

The Soviet Union will be turning more and more to Western nations for supplies of two important metals -- zinc and lead -- the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports.

Since 1971, Iran has been the major foreign source of lead and zinc for its giant Communist neighbor. But by 1979, the Soviets showed increasing interest in Western suppliers due to uncertainty about deliveries from Iran and depletion of mines at home, the CIA states in a March 1980 report.

After being a net exporter for years, the USSR may become a net importer of lead and zinc in the 1980s, the report concludes.

The USSR, the world's largest miner of zinc, and second only to the US in lead production, is facing an increased domestic demand for the two metals, which are put to a variety of uses in products ranging from auto batteries to weapons.

But mine depletion, deteriorating ore quality, and lagging development of new mining capacity will help create increasing shortfalls in coming years, the CIA report stated.

Lead and zinc production in the Soviet Union, as in most major industrial countries, slowed in the 1970s. The slowdown has been more pronounced for zinc, with the average annual growth in output falling from 6.8 percent in the 1960s to 3.1 percent in 1970-78. Soviet lead production increased 5.1 percent annually in the 1960s and 3.5 percent annually in the 1970s.

Annual Soviet imports of lead in the 1970s averaged 54,000 tons, compared with 35,000 tons in the late 1960s. Soviet zinc imports have remained level at about 50,000 tons since 1970.

The most promising deposits for the Soviets are in Siberia, the CIA report concluded, but development costs are high. Rising capital costs and labor shortages in the 1980s will hamper Soviet attempts to attain necessary production goals, the CIA says.

Even if Soviet car and truck production levels off, demand for lead is expected to increase. Growth in lead consumption, however, may be restrained by substitution of plastic and other materials. Soviet zinc consumption should grow steadily in galvanizing and in the manufacture of die-casting alloys, two major applications, as well as in other uses.

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