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Ban on uranium mining in Greenland could be lifted (Niels Hooge)

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

After the recent Greenlandic general elections in March, abolishment of the zero uranium tolerance policy in the Danish Realm (which consists of Southern Denmark and the two autonomous regions Greenland and the Faroe Islands), which has been in effect for 25 years, could now be a very real possibility. The newly elected chairwoman of the Greenlandic self-rule, the Social Democrat Aleqa Hammond, who campaigned against the ban and won with a slim majority, has given notice that a bill will be introduced in the Greenlandic parliament later this year.

However, there is still significant opposition to uranium mining in Greenland. Furthermore, bills to lift the ban will have to be passed both in Nuuk and Copenhagen and even though the Danish government favours the bill, it could still be voted down in the Danish parliament. The Danish government is a minority government and even within the government itself there is opposition to lifting the ban.

In recent years, several exploration and mining projects focusing on rare earth elements (REEs) as well as iron, lead, zinc, molybdenum, rubies, diamonds, platinum and other minerals have been under development in Greenland. One of the largest deposits of REEs in the world has been discovered in Kuannersuit (Kvanefjeldet) at Narsaq in Southern Greenland. However, the bedrock in Kuannersuit does not only contain REEs, but also uranium and by far the world's single largest deposit of thorium – possibly as much as two million tons. Some people consider thorium an alternative to uranium as fuel for 'fourth generation' nuclear power reactors.

The Australian mining company Greenland Minerals and Energy Ltd. (GME), which is licensed to mine in Kuannersuit, estimates the uranium deposit at 232,000 tons of uranium oxide. Another estimate puts the uranium deposit for the whole Ilimaussaq-complex, of which Kuannersuit is a part, at as much at 600,000 tons of uranium. GME has stressed that if the company is not allowed to extract the uranium it will give up its mining operations at Kuannersuit altogether.

If the annual production is as substantial as projected in the 2010 GME financial report − 3,895 tons − Kuannersuit will be the third largest uranium mine and the second largest open pit uranium mine in the world.[1] Only the McArthur River mine in Canada and Ranger in Australia will be bigger. According to the most recent GME estimates, the mine at Kuannersuit will have a life-span of at least 60 years. As the sixth largest uranium deposit in the world, it could provide almost 8% of world production.

In addition to Kuannersuit, there are uranium deposits at Illorsuit, Puissattaq, Ivittuut and Motzfeldt Lake in Southern Greenland, Sarfartoq, Nassuttooq, Qaqqaarsuk and Attu in Western Greenland and Randbøldal and Milne Land in Eastern Greenland, and there might be deposits that have not yet been discovered.

Environmental and economic concerns
The possible location of such a big open pit uranium mine in an Arctic environment that is particularly vulnerable to pollution, because it recovers very slowly, has caused concerns not only among green activists and NGOs in Greenland and Denmark, but also in other Nordic countries. NGOs have pointed out that in addition to substantial chemical pollution by among others sulphuric acid, uranium mining leaves behind millions of tons of tailings containing radioactive materials such as thorium, radium, radon and polonium.[2] The radioactive substances could be washed out from the tailings and absorbed in land vegetation and marine organisms and − if accumulated in the food chains − harm humans and animals.

Critics of uranium mining at Kuannersuit have also pointed out that considering that the waste from uranium mining remains dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, it is a concern that the long-term economic costs of radioactive pollution in Greenland could be so high that they by far exceed the short-term economic benefits. For example the clean-up of residues from uranium mining in Germany of a scale – production of 231,000 tons of uranium [3] − corresponding to the one projected at Kuannersuit, has so far cost the German taxpayers more than seven billion euros and the total costs could be even higher. Uranium mining in Germany was stopped in 1990 and at the earliest, the clean-up is expected to be completed in 2020, after which the contaminated areas must be monitored closely and maintained for a very long time.

It is evident that the licensee, GME, does not have sufficient economic resources to restore ecological damage from millions of tons of waste that remains radioactive for so long. The company's only financial asset is its license to mine in Kuannersuit. Nor does the Greenlandic self-rule have sufficient resources to restore ecological damage at Kuannersuit or elsewhere in Greenland. The Danish government, which is the only stakeholder that possesses sufficient economic resources, has not yet given such a guarantee, even though it will get revenue from the uranium mining by setting income to the Greenlandic self-rule from company taxes and royalties off against block grants.

Furthermore, critics have pointed out that even in the short term, it seems unlikely that an improvement of Greenland's economy is dependent on an abolishment of the uranium zero tolerance policy. For example REEs can be mined southwest of Kangerlussuaq, in Godthåbsfjorden, at Kangerdluarssuq between Narsaq and Qaqortoq and near Narsarsuaq. The REEs deposit at Kangerdluarssuq is described by the licensee, the Australian mining company Tanbreez Mining Greenland, as probably the largest in the world. At the projected extraction rate, mining at Kangerdluarssuq could last 10,000 years. Furthermore, there are many other advanced exploration and mining projects in Greenland.

The next crucial step towards a possible lift of the ban on uranium mining in Greenland will take place in May, when the Greenlandic Ministry of Industry and Labour is expected to release a report on the environmental impact of uranium mining at Kuannersuit. There is a general expectation that the report will downplay the negative environmental aspects of uranium mining. Hence, the response to the report from the NGO community could be an important factor in determining whether the ban will continue or be lifted.

[1] Greenland Minerals and Energy Limited And Controlled Entities: 31 December 2010 Financial Report, p. 9:
[2] Press release: Avataq, The Ecological Council, Renewable Energy, NOAH Friends of the Earth, Bellona, The Network No to Uranium Mining, 11 March 2013:
[3] Dr. J. Becker & Dr. G. Ruhrmann: 20 Jahre Wismut GmbH, Sanieren für die Zukunft Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Technologie (BMWi), 2011, p.4:,property=pdf,bereich...

Contact: Niels Hooge, nielshenrikhooge[@]