Danish U-turn clears way for uranium mining in Greenland

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A majority in the Danish parliament signalled their readiness to allow extraction and exports of uranium from Greenland, marking a historical shift in Danish foreign policy after 30 years of opposition to nuclear power.

A majority in the Danish parliament is prepared for the first time to repeal Denmark’s so-called zero-tolerance policy on the radioactive metal, according to media reports.

The world’s fifth largest uranium deposit, Kvanefjeld, is situated in the south of Greenland and if the Danish self-ruled territory makes a formal request to exploit it, Denmark could become one of the biggest exporters of the radioactive metal.

Uranium is created as a byproduct when extracting many valuable and strategically important metals used in for example mobile phones. Uranium is also used for nuclear power and atomic bombs.

Because of the security political significance, Greenland will have to ask Denmark for permission before the zero-tolerance policy can be repealed.

“We have to approach this positively. We would be caught in a very weird Danish role if we block Greenland’s wish,” foreign policy spokesperson Rasmus Helveg Petersen from the Social Liberals, one of the parties constituting the Danish government, told the newspaper Politiken.

New report to be published

Greenland, a former Danish colony, was granted home rule in 1979. Thirty years later, Greenland assumed self-determination with responsibility for judicial affairs, police, and natural resources, but the Danish government is still in charge of foreign affairs, financial policy and security.

In spring, a report by the Greenlandic Directory for Raw Materials on uranium’s effect on the environment and public health will be published. If the report doesn’t point to major issues, there is likely to be a majority in Greenland's parliament for extracting uranium.

"We support uranium mines as long as these are handled in a proper way and in collaboration with Denmark," said Greenland's Deputy Prime Minister Jens Frederiksen, a member of the Democratic Party.

"If everybody else can sell uranium, then we might as well. There's a lot of money in it," he said.

Meanwhile, Greenland's Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist said his party Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) wants a public debate in Greenland on uranium first.

"Until there is a good reason for repealing the zero-tolerance policy, we will keep our zero-tolerance policy," Kleist said.

U-turn on uranium

Uranium is a toxic and radioactive metal and uranium exposure can affect a person's kidney, brain, liver and heart. Many studies have also found workers working with uranium in mines to have a higher risk of developing lung cancer.

The main use of uranium in the civilian sector is to fuel nuclear power plants and its large-scale exploitation could potentially change Denmark's position on the international stage.

"This is a huge turning point in the kingdom's foreign policy," said uranium expert Cindy Vestergaard from the Danish Institute for International Studies.

"If the zero-tolerance policy is being repealed, Denmark will become part of the world's atom circuit which is one of the most powerful voices in the nuclear field."

Hypocrites

Mads Flarup Christensen, the general-secretary of Greenpeace Nordic, said that if Greenland started exporting uranium, it would be "the height of hypocrisy."

“We have been against reprocessing nuclear waste, and we fought to get Barsebäck [a Swedish nuclear power plant situated close to Copenhagen] closed and pay a lot of money to get reactors in Eastern Europe closed, so if we at the same time allow extraction of uranium in Greenland, it’s deeply hypocritical,” Christensen told the daily Berlingske Tidende

Denmark has been known for many years as one of the world's most environmentally conscious countries. The Scandinavian country was the first to implement an environmental law in 1973, and wind energy today counts for 25% of the energy supply.

The government also aims to make the capital Copenhagen carbon neutral by 2025, with the whole country set to follow by 2050.

Christensen added that Denmark had a "misunderstood fear" when it comes to Greenland. "Of course we have to respect Greenland’s home rule law which says we are in charge of foreign and security matters and they are in charge of raw materials. The problem is that this issue lies in both camps," the Greenpeace general-secretary said.

"At a minimum we could say that 'this is Greenland’s decision, but that we think it’s a bad idea'. Because it is definitely a bad idea,” Christensen stated.

Greenland going alone

In December, Greenland passed a bill setting the framework for foreign mining and exploration companies to start exploiting Greenland's natural resources. It included plans to open up the country to foreign labour, including workers from China.

The legislation defines the size of large-scale projects and regulates the minimum salary of foreign workers. It has been criticised for allowing companies to employ cheap foreign workers, at the expense of local employment.

Despite having passed a law against social dumping in Denmark two months ago, the Danish government is backing the Greenlandic law.

Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Kleist said he had rejected requests from the European Union to block access to its deposits of rare earths, strategically important metals in which China has a near monopoly.

Timeline: 
  • Spring 2013: Greenland to publish report on the environmental and health effects of uranium extraction.
  • June 2013 (at the latest): General elections in Greenland.
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