The prospect of uranium mining in Greenland has been highly controversial: It has polarised the Greenlandic people, put the Greenlandic government on collision course with the Danish and drawn negative attention from environmental groups all over the world. Within the next few months, it may be decided whether the go-ahead will be given to a large-scale uranium mine near the town of Narsaq in Southern Greenland.

In late 2013, Greenland’s Parliament, Inatsisartut, abolished its so-called uranium zero tolerance policy, representing a controversial break from more than 25 years’ shared energy policy in the Danish Realm [1]. The repeal was based on a narrow one-vote majority and made it possible to further develop the enormous uranium and rare earth elements (REEs) project in Kuannersuit near the town of Narsaq in Southern Greenland.

Originally, the most convincing argument for lifting the uranium ban in Greenland was that mining and particularly uranium mining were synonymous with quick economic independence from Denmark. Currently, the Greenlandic economy is dependant on a yearly block grant from Denmark of approx. 500 million euro, constituting a fourth of Greenland’s GDP. Especially mining at Kuannersuit that might contain the world’s second largest uranium deposit and make Greenland one of the world’s biggest exporters of uranium has long been seen as a life saviour for the country’s struggling economy.

But lately a series of scientific studies have disproved that uranium mining or even the entire minerals sector can support Greenland's economy by itself. The biggest critique came, when a study was published by Copenhagen University and University of Greenland, Ilisimatusarfik last year [2]. It concluded that 24 concurrent large-scale mining projects would be required to zero out the financial support from Denmark. To achieve this goal within a reasonable timeframe, a new large-scale project would have to be developed and launched every other year and an unrealistically large number of mineral deposits would be required. The study estimated that in a best-case scenario, the extraction of hard minerals could begin to meaningfully contribute to Greenland's economy within 5−10 years. These findings have since been confirmed by other reports.

Controversy and broken promises

Both the former and the current government’s uranium and minerals policy have been marred by controversy. One would have expected that the lifting of the ban should have been preceded by a comprehensive public and political debate and a thorough evaluation of the impacts of uranium mining, but it never materialised.

First and foremost, it is striking how consistently promises of openness, transparency, neutral information and public participation in developing the minerals sector seem to have been broken. To say the least, the political process has been flawed.

Although the lobbying campaign for uranium mining in Greenland was started long ago by a powerful alliance of industrialists, politicians and civil servants, the idea has never been fully embraced by the public. The campaign began in 2007, when the Australian company Greenland Minerals and Energy Ltd. (GMEL), which is licensed to explore for REEs at Kuannersuit, announced that it also intended to extract uranium.

Whereas uranium until this point in time was considered the main deposit, it was from now of mentioned as an insignificant but inevitable by-product of the REEs that GMEL wants to mine. The abolishment of the uranium zero tolerance policy then was preceded by two government reports that exonerated uranium mining from any suspicion of negative environmental impacts and concluded that it is possible to safely extract uranium if the minimum nuclear proliferation standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency are met.

The campaign culminated last year, when the government tabled amendments to the Mineral Resources Act to remove the right of public access to documents that constitute the basis for decisions on issuance of mining permits, before they are given, and to repeal access to justice. The amendments were supposed to pass during the Parliament’s autumn session, but that was prevented when the election was called. If the amendments had been adopted, the pillars which according to the Aarhus Convention are essential to good environmental governance would no longer have existed in Greenland.

Environmental concerns

The enormous Kuannersuit project has long been object of growing environmental concerns. The possible location of a big open pit uranium mine high up on a mountain in an Arctic environment that is particularly vulnerable to pollution, because it recovers very slowly, has upset green groups and NGOs all over the world.

On Chernobyl Day in 2013, forty-eight green NGOs published a declaration [3], urging the Greenlandic and Danish governments to continue the uranium zero tolerance policy in the Danish Realm. Among others, they pointed out that in addition to substantial chemical pollution by sulphuric acid, uranium mining leaves behind millions of tons of tailings containing radioactive materials, which are among the most radiotoxic substances known to science. These could be washed out and absorbed in land vegetation and marine organisms and - if accumulated in the food chains - harm humans and animals by inflicting disease, genetic damage and mutations.

The result would be a comprehensive radioactive contamination, which – because of the health risks – could make it dangerous to live in and make it necessary to ban fishing, hunting, agriculture and animal husbandry in significant parts of Southern Greenland.

Since then a Dutch scientist, Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, an expert in technology assessment and life cycle analyses of energy systems, has published a report on the Kuannersuit project, in which he concludes that the project is not sustainable. Among others, seepage and spills of heavily contaminated water from the mining pit and the 875 million tons of concentrator tailings in the planned residue storage facility would be unavoidable [4].

This estimate has recently been confirmed by Gerhard Schmidt, a senior researcher at the internationally recognised German think tank, Öko-Institut. According to him, the mining project does not live up to the environmental requirements in EU’s Mining Waste Directive [5]. The Directive requires that the wastes should be sustainably long-term isolated by enclosing their toxic and radioactive constituents as long and as complete as possible. Greenland is not a member of EU, but this means that the project far from lives up to “the highest environmental standards in the world”, which according to the government is a precondition for granting GMEL a mining licence.

What is next?

The fate of Greenland’s uranium mining will be determined in the near future. Considering that the uranium ban was repealed mainly to facilitate the Kuannersuit mining project and that it realistically is the only large-scale uranium project on the agenda in the short and mid-term, much is determined by whether GMEL is granted a uranium mining licence. The company has stated that the social and environmental assessments of the project are ready by October 2015, after which it will apply for a licence. It will then be up to the Greenlandic government to decide, if it will be granted.

However, the former government more than once promised a regional referendum on the project in Southern Greenland before any mining could begin. The question is, whether the current government feels obligated to live up to this promise.

Niels Henrik Hooge is a member of NOAH Friends of the Earth Denmark’s Uranium Group.

Read also: Greenland’s Minerals Potential: Big Dream or False Hope?