Greenland has right to export uranium, say lawyers

Report sets stage for a showdown between Greenland and Denmark over the prospect of exporting radioactive minerals

Greenland’s self-rule government has the right to decide whether or not to sell its resources – including uranium – on the international market, even if lawmakers in Copenhagen disagree. That was the opinion reached in a report by a Danish law firm hired by Greenland’s parliament to investigate the thorny issue between the two countries.

While Greenland’s government has domain over the country’s natural resources, courts and corporate law, Denmark still has responsibility for its foreign affairs and defence.

And due to uranium’s security significance, it had long been thought, especially in Denmark, that Copenhagen would need to agree to permit uranium exports. The report from the law firm seemed to run counter to that opinion, however.

“In our view, Greenland’s parliament should conclude such agreements without the involvement of the [Danish] government,” read the report.  

SEE RELATED: Government leaning toward allowing uranium mining in Greenland

The report did however stress that Greenland’s government should orient Denmark on any uranium trade it undertakes, and that the two governments should co-operate in assuring that any uranium leaving Greenland is intended for peaceful use.

Uranium or ours?
The report has been finished for six months, but the topic is so sensitive that it has been kept quiet. It is only now being released because Greenland’s parliament is scheduled to vote in October on whether to lift a 25-year ban on mining the radioactive material.

The report has laid the groundwork for a showdown between Copenhagen and Nuuk.

Cindy Vestergaard, an expert on nuclear weapons and non-proliferation at the Danish Institute for International Studies, said that the report points out that the relationship between Denmark and Greenland is changing.

“It is exciting because it is the first attempt to assess the legal limits of Greenland’s self-rule,” she told Politiken newspaper.

Vestergaard said the main challenge for Greenland would be how it ensured that its uranium was not used for military purposes.

Potential for much-needed economic windfall
Greenland’s economy is struggling, and the country is counting on mining – including uranium – to give it a much needed boost.

One of the most promising mining projects is Kvanefjeld in southern Greenland, where there are large amounts of rare earth elements, which are used in the production of things like wind turbines and mobile phones.

There is also uranium, and getting to the rare earths will require that Greenland lift its total ban on mining radioactive materials. That vote is scheduled for October. Allowing mining is not the same as allowing exports, but a yes vote would be a major first step.

If permission is granted – and investors are found – Kvanefjeld could be a functioning mine as early as 2016.

Neither government has commented on the report, but after meeting with Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danish prime minister, two weeks ago Greenland premier Aleqa Hammond said the two countries had “agreed to disagree”.