Uranium a hot topic again, in Greenland


Greenland [Shutterstock]

The upcoming general elections in Greenland may see the country moving away from the idea of extracting and exploiting uranium, which the government voted in favour of just a year ago.

Uranium mining, the hottest topic in the the cold, Arctic country in recent years, was put on the agenda by former prime minister Aleqa Hammond in 2013, after 25 years with a ‘zero tolerance’ policy to mining of radioactive substances and oil drilling.

Uranium is a heavy metal which can be both toxic and radioactive, and affect a person’s kidney, brain, liver and heart after exposure. It is used as, among other things, fuel for nuclear power plants.

According to Hammond, a Greenlandic mineral and oil venture would add big profits to the country’s sluggish economy, which is deeply dependent on fisheries and tourism, and eventually lead to Greenland’s independence from Denmark. The tiny nation of around 57,000 citizens is currently deeply depending on a frozen subsidy of 3.4 billion Danish crowns (€457 million) per year.

In October 2013, the Greenlandic government voted in favour of mining radioactive materials after a heated debate by 15-14 votes. But after revelations that Hammond had spent taxpayers’ money on expensive flight tickets and vacations for her family, the prime minister was forced to step down after only 18 months in power in September, and the question of uranium has once again taken centre stage in Greenland.

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

But the general elections on 28 November could put the leftist opposition party Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), which is currently leading the polls, back in power. The party wants a referendum on legalising uranium mining.

“Of course, this is a theme in the election campaign. We are a ‘no-to-uranium party’, and this is a question which divides the population,” Naaja Nathanielsen, a spokesperson on finance from the IA, told the Danish newspaper Politiken.

Meanwhile, Hammond’s social democratic party, Siumut, is now also playing down the necessity of exploiting uranium in Greenland and subsequently becoming independent. 

“The most important task for us is to make sure that Greenland has a sustainable economy. It’s not important whether it’s this generation which will experience independence or the next one,” Kenneth Rasmussen, a member of Siumut, told Greenland’s biggest newspaper Sermitsiaq.

The change in sentiment towards uranium in Greenland also comes at a time where London Mining, a British mining company backed by Chinese steelmakers and the biggest investor in Greenland, is in financial trouble and according to analysts will have to file for bankruptcy soon unless a strategic, corporate partner is found.

London Mining was planning a €1.7 billion investment in an iron ore mine near the capital of Nuuk and about 2,300 Chinese workers were expected to work at the mine which would supply China with iron.

Even though experts also believe that large oil fields exist off the coast of East Greenland, the government has not received a single application for an oil drilling license from any company for more than a year.   

In a recent op-ed, French MP André Gattolin and Arctic expert Damien Degeorges said Greenland’s financial troubles could lead to the country seeking closer ties with the EU. They called for “stronger financial involvement of the European Union in Greenland, in a context where major powers such as China have demonstrated a pragmatic approach in their interest for the Arctic island, would be more than welcome to secure a healthy Greenlandic economy on the long term.”

Greenland joined the European Common Market along with Denmark in 1973, but left the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1985 over fishing quotas.

Improved relations

The debate over whether to drill in Greenland has left the otherwise good relationship between Denmark and Greenland bruised. The Danish government opposed both the oil drilling and the uranium extraction for environmental reasons, as this could threaten the Arctic region’s pristine ecological system, but also over fear that a large-scale exploitation of uranium could change both Denmark and Greenland’s standing on the international stage.

A cool relationship between Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Hammond even led the Danish prime minister to set up a secret committee to get a clarification of what the foreign policy consequences of uranium exports from Greenland would mean.

The Danish government first claimed that Greenland is not legally in charge of its commodities, as the question of uranium is related to foreign and security policies. When a consultancy report proved otherwise, the government made a U-turn, saying it would not try to block Greenland’s wishes.

This prompted a group of non-governmental organisations, including Greenpeace, to call the Danes ‘hypocrites’.

Mads Flarup Christensen, the general-secretary of Greenpeace Nordic, said that Denmark had always been against reprocessing nuclear waste, and fought to get Barsebäck [a Swedish nuclear power plant situated close to Copenhagen] closed as well, and had paid a lot of money to get reactors in Eastern Europe closed, but was suddenly allowing extraction of uranium in Greenland.

Claus Hjort Frederiksen, representing the Liberal Party in Denmark, said that in recent years, Greenland had adopted a “very aggressive style” towards Denmark, but that this had now disappeared.

“The tone was not fruitful, and it blocked common solutions to the challenges that Greenland faces. It’s great to see that there’s now more realism in the Greenlandic debate,” Frederiksen said. 

Around 57,000 people live in Greenland, making it the least densely populated country in the world. Only 44 politicians are in charge of the country (including ministers, MPs and mayors).

Greenland was granted home rule in 1979, but the Danish government is still in charge of foreign affairs, financial policy and security - including defense, police and justice. Denmark provides a subsidy of 3.4 billion crowns (€457 million) per year.

Greenland joined the European Common Market along with Denmark in 1973, but left the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1985 over the bloc's commercial fishing regulations and ban on seal skin products.

  • 28 Nov.: General elections in Greenland.
  • End 2014: Agreement on uranium extraction between Greenland and Denmark expected.

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