Uranium Extraction in the Arctic: Challenges and Opportunities

News | May 13, 2013

Dr. Cindy Vestergaard, visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, discussed the complexities and implications of uranium mining in Greenland at EWI’s New York Center.

The EastWest Institute hosted “Uranium Extraction in the Arctic: Challenges and Opportunities for Greenland and Denmark,” a  seminar with Dr. Cindy Vestergaard, visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, on May 9 at its New York Center. Vestergaard discussed an underreported but emerging issue with strong implications for the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament regime: uranium mining in Greenland. Moderated by EWI’s Andrew Nagorski, the seminar featured a discussion on the political and regulatory challenges posed by Greenland’s massive uranium reserves.

Vestergaard’s presentation began by noting that uranium mining in Greenland rests at the intersection of a number of complex issues: climate change, resource extraction, Greenland’s movement towards independence, and nuclear nonproliferation.

One element that significantly complicates the efforts of newcomers to uranium production like Greenland is the lack of international governance of uranium. Although the IAEA requires reporting on the export and import of uranium, many countries are not complete in their reporting.

As Vestergaard stated, “For the rest of the fuel cycle we have a very dedicated aspect of inventory, material accountancy control; for the front end, there is none.”

Greenland has the potential to become one of the world’s top ten suppliers of uranium ore concentrate; the Kvanefled project at the southern tip of Greenland alone is estimated to contain the world’s fifth largest reserve of uranium. However, the exploitation of these vast resources is complicated by Denmark’s resolute non-nuclear stance. Denmark has all but foregone the entire nuclear fuel cycle by banning the mining of radioactive materials, excluding nuclear power as part of its indigenous energy grid, and shuttering all three of its nuclear research reactors. In 1957, Denmark declared itself a nuclear weapons-free-zone, a position that caused a stir following revelations that U.S. nuclear weapons were based on Greenland until 1965.

Despite Denmark’s disdain for all things nuclear, Greenland appears to be edging in the other direction. Denmark is constitutionally responsible for the defense, security, monetary, and foreign policy of the Danish Kingdom, but the 2009 Self-Government Act granted Greenland full authority over its natural resources. Following general elections in March, Greenland’s new government has indicated that it will lift its zero-tolerance policy on uranium mining. But in order for Greenland to proceed with uranium production, Denmark and Greenland will be faced with the challenge of developing an export control and regulatory system with little preexisting experience to build upon. Acknowledging the magnitude of the challenge, Vestergaard noted, “Our experience globally is that if you’re starting from scratch, building a regulatory system, minimum [of] five years … usually upwards of ten.”

Although Greenland is years away from beginning uranium mining, Vestergaard’s presentation outlined the complex and interdependent challenges that Greenland, and other territories like it, will face as they enter the global nuclear market. At the same time, the responsible development of Greenland’s regulatory framework has the opportunity to strengthen the nonproliferation policies of the Danish Kingdom and the international community at large.