Planet Earth Weekly

Climate Change and Renewable Energy: Saving Our Planet for Future Generations

Greenland: Mining of Uranium and Rare Earth Metals

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Greenland: The long term effects of mining in Greenland could be devastating to the environment and the economy.(Photo credit: Beechwood Photography)

Uranium waste from mining contains radioactive decay products which have the potential to effect surface, ground water, soil, and air quality in Greenland for thousands of years.

By Lin Smith

Greenland’s Ice Sheet
November 1o, 2013—Greenland is a semi-autonomous part of the Kingdom of Denmark. It is located between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. Greenland’s ice sheet is approximately 660,000 sq. miles, which is about 80% of its surface, second only to the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Its thickness averages more than one mile. The current ice sheet in Greenland is approximately 110,000 years old and there has been a continuous ice sheet for over 18 million years. Greenland’s ice sheet contains valuable records and, according to Wikipedia, the data collected from the ice sheet is “greater than in any other natural recorder of the climate, such as tree rings or sediment layers.” But according to the satellite monitoring this ice sheet since the 1970’s, it has been steadily growing thinner. As stated in last week’s post by John J. Hidore, “As a result of the warmer temperatures, the ice has been thawing further from shore and the remaining perennial ice pack has been getting thinner. In some areas it is only half as thick as it was a few decades ago.” This melting of the ice sheet allows for passage of freighters, without ice breaker ships, to places that were previously inaccessible.

Reducing Dependency on Denmark
Currently, more than half of Greenland’s revenues come from Denmark, but Greenland’s goal is to reduce dependency on Denmark’s subsidies. Greenland’s government has recently voted to allow mining of uranium, which has had a 25 year ban. Uranium is often found mixed with rare earth metals, therefore, requiring the  ban to be lifted on both rare earths metals and uranium. Also, there is a growing demand for rare earth metals, as they are used in many every day devices such as cell phones, rechargeable batteries, DVDs, computers, and fluorescent lighting. Greenland’s government approved the end of the uranium ban recently in a 15 to 14 vote, arguing with Denmark that “its autonomy from Denmark will let Greenland export uranium.”  Denmark has said Greenland can decide only on excavation of uranium, not on its exportation. Greenland Minerals, according to the Wall Street Journal, is “developing an $810 million rare-earths and uranium project that it hopes will produce enough uranium and zinc to subsidize mining rare earth metals at a lower cost than in China, the world’s largest producer.”

Environmental Effects of Mining
China is currently the world supplier of rare earths but in 2013 China put a cap on the production of rare earths stating that overmining has created massive damage to their environment and China “no longer wants to pay the environmental costs of supplying the vast bulk of the world’s rare earths,” as reported by David Stanway. There has been little or no regulation of the mining of rare earth metals in China, leading to many environmental disasters. For example, in Northern China near the Mongolian border radioactive water from a mine is leaking into the Yellow River, which is a major source of drinking water and in south-central China, there are a large number of illegal rare earth strip mines. In southeast China, runoff from rare earth mines are destroying rice fields and water sources.

With the mining of uranium comes radioactive decay products, which, as with the rare earth metals, have the potential to affect the quality of surface and ground water, soil, and air. Tailings from mining uranium can contaminate a site for thousands of years according the article, “Potential Environmental Effects of Uranium Mining, Processing, and Reclamation” published by the National Academies Press. This article also states that “limited data exists to confirm the long-term effectiveness of uranium tailings’ management facilities that have been designed and constructed according to our modern best practices.”

Long Term Effects of Uranium 
Forty-eight NGOs (nongovernment organizations), including Greenpeace, have signed a petition to stop mining in Greenland. The reasons they have listed include: 1.There will be chemical pollution from radioactive tailings. 2.There is no safe technology to store radioactive residues. 3.The Arctic environment is vulnerable to pollution, as it is extremely slow to recover due to the cold temperatures which slow down the chemical breakdown of the contaminants. 4.Up to 85% of the radioactivity from uranium mining will remain in the tailings and leakage is highly possible, spreading the radioactive materials throughout the pristine environment. 5. As in the mining of rare earth metals in China, leakage of radiation may accumulate in the food chain, thus contaminating fish and causing genetic damage to life in the Arctic. 6. Contamination could eliminate the fishing industry of Greenland.

Greenland Minerals and Energy LTD is licensed to mine in Greenland and according to the NGO organizations, “Greenland Minerals does not have sufficient economic resources to clean up ecological damage done to the region from the millions of tons of radioactive waste, nor does Greenland itself have the resources to restore the damage.”

And finally,  responsible nations and citizens of the world need to ask themselves, “What would be the long term cost of opening Greenland to the mining of uranium and rare earth metals?” The NGO organizations summarize it well, “The long term economic damage could far exceed any compensation from jobs or short term economic success!”


Author: Planet Earth Weekly

My goal, as a responsible adult, is to leave a planet that people, plants, and animals can continue to occupy comfortably. I am an educator by profession. While educating myself on Climate Change and Renewable Resources, I hope to share my knowledge and images with those that share my concern. Dr. John J. Hidore is a retired professor from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and I am proud to call him my Uncle. His work has taken him to regions across the globe—including the Middle East, where he conducted research for a year in the Sudan. He has written many books, such as Climatology: An Atmospheric Science and Global Environmental Change.----Linn Smith

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