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Oil & Minerals
Uranium in Greenland

Divided they stand

Opponents of uranium mining appear to have a majority in Greenland’s parliament. That will be little of little avail if they continue to speak with different tongues

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When Greenland’s national assembly convenes again on April 8, sixteen of the 31 members of the Inatsisartut will be prepared to vote in favour of holding a referendum on uranium mining. Even with their majority, success is looking unlikely.

The problem is that each of the three parties opposing uranium mining has its own proposal for which type of referendum should be held, as well as the outcome they would like to see.

IA, the largest opposition party, and Parti Naleraq, which nearly entered the governing coalition in 2014, but ultimately did not due to disagreement on the uranium issue, support an outright ban on mining radioactive materials. The two parties diverge when it comes to the question of how often a vote should be held.

SEE RELATED: An elemental debate

IA would be satisfied with a single referendum that asked voters whether uranium mining and export should be permitted. Parti Naleraq, meanwhile, would go much further: it suggests holding a vote each time a license to mine a radioactive mineral is being considered. It would also require that a non-binding referendum be held before any mine, regardless of what is being dug for, is allowed to begin operation.

A third party, Atassut, straddles the fence. As a member of the governing coalition, it does not oppose taking radioactive minerals out of the ground, provided it is done incidentally when mining for something else. In order to ensure that happens, it would set a limit on how much radiation extracted minerals will be permitted to contain.

Such a construction would likely permit Greenland Minerals and Energy, an Australia-based firm, to go ahead with a mine that would primarily go after rare earths, but which would also involve uranium extraction.

Should the Atassut proposal pass, the government would be required first to organise activities aimed at informing the public about radioactive minerals, and then, at some point in 2017, to hold a referendum.

SEE RELATED: Pandora’s mine

Inatsisartut voted in 2013 to end all restrictions on mining radioactive minerals. Steen Lynge, an Atassut legislator, describes the party’s measure as a way to recognise that some radiation is unavoidable when mining, while at the same time ensuring that outright uranium mines were not permitted.

“It’s important that Greenland does not allow uranium to me be mined as the primary product,” he says.

Even though Parti Naleraq’s proposal goes much futher, it is in keeping with Greenlandic laws that prevent land ownership, argues Per Rosing, one of the party’s representatives in Inatsisartut.

“The way things are, we can’t buy land, not even to build a house. The land is something we own collectively, and this applies to the companies that want to mine,” he says. “It only makes sense that we would ask the people to approve something as big as mine. Doing so lies in our culture and our identity, and it’s also in keeping with our democratic values.”

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The most recent indicator of where people stand on the uranium issue is a 2014 poll that found 66% of voters supported a referendum. Even without newer figures, Mr Rosing argues that a referendum is justified, given the amount of interest people have expressed in the issue.

IA, like Atassut, would require the government to inform the public about uranium mining before holding a referendum. Voters, however, would be asked to vote simply for or against uranium mining and export.

The party recognises that if uranium mining is rejected, as they hope, it could have financial consequences for the country.

One reason is because Greenland Minerals and Energy, which has spent 500 million kroner ($76 million) and eight years in preparation for opening a mine, would in all likelihood be forced to stop its activities in Greenland. A lawsuit, according to IA, would likely ensue.

“We can’t rule out that some of this amount would need to be repaid to the firm given the shattered assumptions,” the party wrote in its proposal.

SEE RELATED: The uncertainty is blowing in the wind

IA further warns that implementing a ban might lead to a temporary slowdown in investments in the mining sector, due to the uncertainty such an outcome would cause. This, in turn, could lead to a decline in overall economic activity that would force the government to reduce spending.

IA, though, argues that not involving voters in the decision making process surrounding uranium has already created an uncertain situation for the mining industry.

This article was originally published by  Sermitsiaq, a weekly newspaper published by this website’s parent company.

Photo: Leiff Josefsen