Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, is soon to become a major hub for exporting uranium thanks to legislation passed last month by Denmark’s government. Copenhagen has ensured the safe passage of the radioactive material from Greenland – in a form of refined powder known as ‘yellowcake’ – even though Denmark itself paradoxically has a zero-tolerance policy towards nuclear materials and remains opposed to nuclear power.
Under Danish direct-rule, Greenland shared the Kingdom of Denmark’s 25-year blanket ban on nuclear materials. However, Greenland transitioned to self-rule in 2009 and has therefore gained control of its valuable underground resources.
The world’s largest island is loaded with rare earth minerals, coveted substances used in expensive technologies. Mining them produces uranium as a by-product, a resource the country now hopes to export abroad. Because of the sensitivity of the cargo, exporting uranium is considered a defence and security affair, so the details of the deal had to be worked out in Denmark rather than by the Parliament of Greenland.
“Uranium mining can also be seen within a longer arc of the Self-Rule Government looking for a key resource to provide a rapid pathway to full independence”
Aside from the mere export trade benefits, there could be wider political forces at play, according to Richard Powell, Associate Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oxford. ‘Uranium mining can also be seen within a longer arc of the Self-Rule Government looking for a key resource to provide a rapid pathway to full independence,’ he says. ‘Before uranium, it was going to be oil.’
The issue is also controversial on the island itself. ‘The votes within Greenland about lifting the ban became intensely contested,’ says Powell. ‘This is because of events during the Cold War involving the US Air Force.’ In 1968, an American B-52 bomber crash-landed into its station at Thule, detonating the four B28 nuclear bombs it carried and igniting 35,000 gallons of fuel. The disaster contaminated a 2,000-foot area and afflicted hundreds of workers.
When Greenland overturned the ban in 2013, extraction only won by a slim majority of 15 votes to 14 in its Parliament and it has never been held to a public vote. Uranium continues to divide Greenlanders, with those in favour touting the economic gains and those opposed warning of the environmental and societal impact.
This was published in the August 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.