Dec '13/Jan '14

The big thaw

Greenland lifts ban on uranium and rare earths mining

By Chris Windeyer

When Greenland’s parliament voted to rescind the country’s longstanding ban on uranium mining in late October, they may have clarified uranium’s legal status, but it is not yet clear if that will translate into a rush by exploration firms into the self-governing Danish territory.

The centre-left coalition government of Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond secured a repeal of Greenland’s uranium ban – formally known as the zero tolerance policy – by a narrow and contentious 15-14 vote, over calls by opponents for a nationwide referendum on the question.

Officials from Greenland’s Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum (BMP) and its industry ministry were not available for an interview, but in an email Jørgen T Hammeken-Holm, BMP’s acting director, said there was no lineup of companies waiting to rush in following the ban’s demise. “We have not yet heard from any new exploration companies concerning exploration for uranium in Greenland,” he wrote.

So there is no rush yet, but there is interest. A 2012 report by the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) projected Greenland could eventually produce as much as 2,000 tonnes of uranium per year. Companies with existing exploration interests are eager to push ahead, particularly because much of Greenland’s uranium is found alongside reserves of rare earth elements (REE), the production of which can yield uranium as a byproduct. With China currently controlling about 97 per cent of the world’s supply of REEs, the end of the uranium ban is as much about developing Greenland’s prodigious reserves of REEs as it is about uranium.

Australia-based Greenland Minerals and Energy may be the single biggest beneficiary of the end of the ban. It controls the massive Kvanefjeld REE-­uranium project in southwestern Greenland, which the DIIS report estimates could eventually meet 20 per cent of the global REE demand.

John Mair, Greenland Minerals and Energy’s executive director, said the uranium ban prevented his company from even consulting with residents or government agencies. “The zero tolerance policy was a real impedance to us properly engaging the regulatory bodies,” he said. “Our aim now is to get an exploitational mining licence application into the system in the latter half of next year.” Meanwhile, Mair said, bureaucrats from Greenland and Denmark must put their heads together and figure out how to ensure that uranium mining in Greenland meets international standards.

Many of Greenland’s uranium de­posits are not recent finds. Kvanefjeld was discovered in the 1950s by Danish geologists but later mothballed in the 1980s when Denmark opted not to develop its own nuclear power production. “We’ve only scratched the surface and we’ve got a 950-million-tonne resource,” Mair said. “In south Greenland there’s potential to expand that resource base substantially. There are other prospective areas in south Greenland, but I’d say that’s relatively well understood now.” Mair said other areas with potential lie farther north along Greenland’s west coast, as well as its more remote and sparsely populated east coast.

In some ways, Greenland’s timing is not ideal. Uranium prices have been low since Japan suspended nuclear power production in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster and Germany decided to phase out nuclear power that same year. Prior to these events, one pound of uranium sold for roughly US$65, before falling in the following months to around US$50, where it held steady for the next year. Today the price per pound is about $37. But if Japan reboots its nuclear program, prices could rebound based on a looming uranium supply shortfall.

For what it is worth, Canadian uranium giant Cameco, which has avoided exploration in Greenland in favour of Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, and the United States, is now reconsidering its options. “We are not currently exploring in Greenland but are pleased that the country has opened the door to safe and responsible uranium mining,” said Cameco spokesman Rob Gereghty. “The removal of this barrier will allow us to consider Greenland for potential uranium exploration projects.”

Hammond’s government has made domestic economic development a priority as it tries to reduce Greenland’s dependency on Denmark, which supports the home-rule government to the tune of $500 million per year. “We can’t stand by as unemployment rises and the cost of living goes up, while our economy remains stagnant,” she told The Arctic Journal after the vote passed. With 39 mining companies already possessing some form of licence, for everything from coal to molybdenum, Greenland stands to become a very busy place for miners.

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