Government leaning toward allowing uranium mining in Greenland

Turnaround could be too little, too late after years of foot-dragging on Greenlandic mineral riches

A parliamentary majority seems ready to drop Denmark's 25-year ban on uranium mining, paving the way to permitting Greenlandic mining operations that result in the extraction of the radioactive element, and setting the Kingdom of Denmark on its way to becoming one of its largest exporters.

If Greenland’s Self-Rule government also decides to follow suit and allow uranium mining, the world’s fifth largest reserves in Kvanefjeld in southern Greenland would become available.

The current zero-tolerance policy prevents all operations that result in uranium being removed from the ground, even as a by-product. The policy prevents companies from mining for valuable rare earths that are vital for modern technologies like mobile phones. Those minerals are located in areas surrounded by uranium, which has both peaceful and military applications.

Due to the element’s security significance, Denmark must agree to permit uranium exports before Greenland can decide whether it will allow it to be mined.

The government’s Greenland spokesperson, Flemming Møller Mortensen, Socialdemokraterne (S), said the ruling party and PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt (S) were in favour of allowing Greenland to exploit its mineral wealth.

“To the extent that existing conventions allow for lawful exploration, trade and distribution, they should be opened up,” Mortensen told Politiken newspaper.

The Greenland Bureau of Mineral and Petroleum is set to deliver a report in the spring, outlining the potential public health and the environmental impacts of uranium mining. If the report appears positive, a majority in Greenland’s parliament appears ready to vote in favour of repealing the zero-tolerance policy.

“We are in favour of uranium mines as long as it is done in a proper manner and in co-operation with Denmark,” Greenland’s transportation minister, Jens B Frederiksen, told Politiken. “There is good money in it, and if other countries can sell uranium, we should be allowed to as well.”

 Frederiksen said he felt it was “very likely” zero tolerance would be dropped.  

Kuupik Kleist (Inuit Ataqatigiit), Greenland’s premier, reiterated that for the time being zero tolerance was still the law of the land.

Emerging from a congress of his ruling party this weekend, Kleist advised everyone to tone down the rhetoric.

“There may prove to be a valid reason to repeal the zero-tolerance rule, but at our convention, IA decided in favour of keeping it in place,” Kleist told Greenlandic newspaper Sermitsiaq.

The party maintained its stance on zero tolerance because it has seen no information that convinced it of the need for a change.

Kleist also wants to see public discussion of any change in uranium policy.

“If Denmark has its own uranium and wants to extract and export it, they are welcome to do so. We maintain our zero tolerance for uranium in this country,” he said.

Meanwhile, many view Denmark’s current rush to get on-board in Greenland's mining industry as a desperate attempt to make up for earlier mistakes.

Since Greenland took control of the island’s mineral resources in 2009, it has actively been courting mineral companies around the world. Chinese and Australian companies have put serious money and manpower on the table, while Denmark and Europe sat passively by; something that members of the previous Venstre-led government acknowledge was a mistake.

“We have not been in the game trying to get Danish, Scandinavian and other European investors to take an interest in mining in Greenland,” former finance minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen (Venstre) told Politiken. “No one imagined we would see a situation where three or four thousand Chinese workers might come to Greenland, he said referring to a recently passed Greenlandic law relaxing labour and immigration regulations for foreign mining companies.

Danish passivity towards Greenland's mineral resources has often frustrated the island’s labour and industry minister, Ove Karl Berthelsen.

“It is obviously unfortunate and unfair that nothing was done about it,” he told Politiken.

Hjort Frederiksen feared that non-action would make it easier for foreign countries to influence Greenlandic policymaking.

“It is scary because the Chinese do not expect their investment to pay off in five or ten years,” he said. “They see it as a long-term political investment, and once you have seen the how the Chinese behave in Africa, you do not want that behaviour to be transferred to Danish citizens.”

Thorning-Schmidt was bemused at Venstre’s sudden interest in Greenland.

“They were in power for ten years and when Greenland was granted self-rule, so it is odd that they now want to distance themselves from decisions that they made,” Thorning-Schmidt told Politiken.

She said her government would soon present a new Greenland policy, but Greenland's Frederiksen warned that now that Danes finally want to get into the game, they should not expect special treatment.

“All Danish investment is welcome, but we do not have exclusive agreements with anyone.”

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