Opinion | Starting from zero: Denmark and Greenland’s uranium

Denmark is concerned that Greenland’s exported uranium supplies may end up in a nuclear weapons programme if the mining prohibition is lifted.

Greenland’s coalition government wants to lift the country’s 25-year prohibition on mining uranium. What does this mean for Danish nuclear non-proliferation and security policy?

Why now?
After more than three decades of Home Rule, Greenland ‘took home’ more authorities from Denmark in 2009, including full control over its natural resources under the Act on Greenland Self-Government. In its drive for modernisation, development and self-determination, Greenland has since been embarking on developing its rich natural resources. And Greenland has lots to develop: it has iron, aluminium, zinc, diamonds, gold and incredible resources of rare earth elements (REE). It also has large reserves of uranium. Herein lies the crux of the issue. The REE deposit at Kvanefjeld contains more than 10 million tonnes of rare earth, but also 260,000 tonnes of uranium.  In short, this is a practical issue: if Greenland wants to exploit Kvanefjeld for rare earth, it will also need to extract uranium. 

EU tolerance?
There has been speculation that the zero-tolerance policy will be lifted to a limit of 0.1 percent uranium (or 1,000 parts per million). The exact limit is not stated in the coalition agreement between Siumut, Atassut and Partii Inuit, which simply states that the “zero tolerance for uranium-bearing minerals will be repealed” and it must be done in terms of health, nature and the environment. Some Greenlandic officials however have identified the 0.1 percent marker as one being in line with the EU. This is not entirely correct.

It is true that European Commission Regulation #9 of February 1960 specifies the application of the Euratom Treaty to uranium ores containing 0.1 percent or more uranium (and thorium containing 3 percent or more), which theoretically could mean that anything less than 1,000ppm would not be applicable to Euratom controls. Euratom safeguards however require that any batch of yellowcake that rounds up to one kilogram is reportable. Additionally, Article 197.4 of the Euratom Treaty defines ores as ‘source material’ when it becomes concentrated. In other words, there is not an upper (or lower) limit for Euratom. 

Euratom and the European Supply Agency (ESA) for example are involved in the Finland Sotkamo project where the uranium content is extremely low (an average 0.0015-0.0020 percent) which will be produced and therefore concentrated. Moreover technological advances in extraction over the decades have allowed ore with a uranium content well below 1,000ppm to be mined. But, without a lot of uranium extracted in Europe in recent years, there has been no need to update Regulation #9.

As the Kvanefjeld ore has an average 350ppm of uranium (and 800ppm thorium), the 1,000ppm ‘Greenlandic limit’ would allow uranium extraction at the site, but would place some limits on uranium exploration/exploitation in the years to come, particularly in the northern part of the island where the geology around Thule is similar to the Athabasca basin of Canada – an area known for the world’s highest-grade deposits with an average uranium content between 15-20 percent (150,000-200,000ppm). 

The issue for Copenhagen, no matter what limit Greenland sets for itself, is how to ensure that any uranium exported from the kingdom does not end up in a nuclear weapons programme, whether legitimate or illegitimate.

Starting from zero
The Danish realm is a kingdom that has essentially foregone the nuclear fuel cycle, except for medical purposes. In 1985 a parliamentary resolution legislated that nuclear power would not be included in the country’s indigenous energy grid (albeit ten percent of Denmark’s energy does come from Swedish and German nuclear power) and all three of its nuclear research reactors have been closed (two are fully decommissioned, while the third will be by 2018). Also, Denmark has one of the oldest laws on radioactive sources (1953) with its regulator able to track in real-time the country’s 11,000 sources. 

Not surprisingly, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) ranked Denmark top of the list of countries without weapons-usable materials on its Nuclear Materials Security Index. And this is the major challenge for Denmark: how to build a robust regulatory and export control system for uranium production from scratch. And how to do so with a very limited pool of domestic nuclear expertise.

At a minimum, any such regulatory system would mean following UN sanctions and basic reporting of mining activities and uranium exports to the IAEA (and to Euratom for Denmark). The optimal however would be to ensure that Greenland’s uranium does not feed into the weapons programmes of a nuclear weapons’ possessor, including that of its allies. 

The latter would require a set of conditions of supply to be developed accompanied by a kingdom-wide verification and inspection regime. This would then have to be co-ordinated by both Copenhagen and Nuuk. Consequently, education, training and awareness of the nuclear fuel cycle and its international obligations are vital as the kingdom moves upwards zero.

Cindy Vestergaard is a senior researcher at The Danish Institute for International StudiesA new conversation

The 2009 Self-Rule Act created a new situation within the kingdom where Greenland exercises full authority over its natural resources and Denmark remains constitutionally responsible for the kingdom’s foreign, defence and security policy. This situation, coupled with the potential for uranium production, requires both sides to cultivate a common framework to share authorities. 

This will require a whole new approach by Copenhagen and Nuuk to discussing foreign and nuclear policy. Greenland’s potential to break into the top ten – potentially even top five – of the world’s producers of uranium also means that Denmark will have a new, and influential, voice at the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

The foreign and defence aspects of uranium production as well as the need for dialogue were underscored by both the Danish prime minister and the Greenlandic premier at their first meeting on April 17. Uranium production will provide opportunities and challenges as both sides work towards economic development in Greenland in a way that is responsible, pragmatic and takes into account the island’s drive toward eventual independence. If a solid knowledge base and clear lines of communication are developed, there will be no limits to where the kingdom’s non-proliferation and disarmament policy could go.