A new two-party coalition government on the autonomous Danish territory is planning to stop one of the world’s biggest rare earth mining projects over fears that radioactive uranium, which is also present in the deposit, could damage the local environment. The prospect that the mine, known as Kuannersuit, could be shut down is a heavy blow to the EU’s long-term plan to source more rare earth metals — which are key to the production of a range of green technology from electric cars to wind turbines — from politically stable Western-aligned countries. The EU is increasingly concerned that relying on China, which sources the bulk of “critical” raw materials — those defined as economically important and with high supply risk — is unwise among ongoing diplomatic tensions between Brussels and Beijing.
“The new coalition does not support uranium mining,” Naaja Hjelholt Nathanielsen, Greenland’s new minister of mining, told Politico.
Her party, Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), made scrapping the rare earth mine and uranium central to its campaign ahead of last month’s election. And following its win at the ballot box, it is widely expected to make good on that promise.
Nathanielsen said she has yet to meet with Greenland Minerals, the Australia-based company developing the mine, but she expects the government will make an announcement about the project “before summer.” The proposal is currently subject to a public hearing that is scheduled to end June 1.
“I suppose they will stop the project,” said Erik Jensen, the leader of the Siumut party, which came second and lost power in the April election. His party has long backed the mine, but it too has cooled on the project in recent months.
“We are neutral in the issue right now because we would like to first see the hearing process and what the geologists have said about the project,” Jensen said.
A long time coming
The deposit at Kuannnersuit, which is in Greenland’s more hospitable southwest, was discovered by Danish geologists in the mid-1950s and received a big publicity boost in 1957 when the Danish Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr visited the site and expressed optimism about mining there. After decades of prospecting for uranium for eventual nuclear power plants in Denmark, Copenhagen suspended the mining program amid growing popular resistance to nuclear energy.
In 2013, the Greenlandic government shifted course again, and after a vote said uranium mining could restart, a move that re-energized the Kuannersuit project with its mix of uranium and rare earth metals.
Greenland Minerals argues the scheme would provide hundreds of well-paid jobs and vital state income. Greenland’s economy currently runs in large part on a subsidy from the Danish state, something parties advocating Greenlandic independence, including IA and Siumut, hope to change by developing a number of key industries, especially mining, fishing and tourism.
But in the town of Narsaq, close to the Kuannersuit mine site, opponents of the project say they fear radioactive dust from the pit will damage people’s health, pollute local farmland and scare away tourists.
Narsaq local Mariane Paviasen, an MP with IA who has campaigned against the mine, was recently appointed head of the parliament’s committee on trade and raw materials.
“I want to do what I promised and stop the mining of uranium on Greenland,” she told local media.
Undermining the EU’s plans
China currently accounts for around 70 percent of rare earth mining globally and between 85 percent and 90 percent of rare earth processing, according to a report by the consultancy Adamas. That’s not ideal for the EU, which is wary of relying too heavily on one country for the supplies of materials like neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium and terbium it needs to make its green ambitions a reality.
“By diversifying the supply from third countries and developing the EU’s own capacity for extraction, processing, recycling, refining and separation of rare earths, we can become more resilient and sustainable,” Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton said in September, at the launch of the EU executive’s Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials.
The EU’s biggest known deposit of rare earths lies close to Sweden’s second-largest lake in a hamlet called Norra Kärr. But local concerns about the environmental impact of mineral extraction on local water supplies mean production, if it ever happens, is still years away. The Kuannersuit deposit is believed to be even larger, and while Greenland lies outside the EU, bloc-member Denmark retains control over foreign, defense and security policy. That means Copenhagen would be expected to have a say over where Greenland sells uranium and rare earths because of their strategic nature, experts say, making Greenland a more stable trading partner than China.
The EU is not the only one interested. Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s famous offer to buy Greenland in 2019 was in part motivated by a desire to control the island’s mineral reserves. The U.S. has since opened a consulate general in the Greenlandic capital Nuuk and Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the island last week.
Despite the bleak outlook, Greenland Minerals is not giving up, and chief executive John Mair said the company would continue to make its case for Kuannersuit at the upcoming public hearing.
“If it stalls due to unforeseen political reasons, it will not be seen as a positive step in the eyes of the international investment community,” Mair told the Australian business paper the Market Herald.
Mining Minister Nathanielsen acknowledged communication from the Greenlandic government over the years regarding uranium mining had “been back and forth with changing viewpoints.”
But she added that, beyond uranium, the new government is strongly in favor of the further development of Greenland’s mining industry at sites where uranium is not present. “The legislative framework is in general robust and investors and projects more than welcome,” she said.