As a doctor I routinely get asked for a second opinion, but it is not often that I travel halfway around the world to deliver it. Recently I was invited to assess an old Danish uranium exploration site in Kvanefjeld in southern Greenland. Inuit Ataqatigiit – the opposition party in the national parliament ‒ had asked me to talk to local people about the health implications of re-opening the defunct mine. An Australian firm called Greenland Minerals and Energy (GME) has big plans to extract uranium and rare earth minerals here. It would be a world first: an open-pit uranium mine on an Arctic mountain-top.
From the top of the range above the minesite I looked down across rolling green farmland to the small fishing village of Narsaq. Colourful timber houses rested at the edge of a deep blue strait that the Viking Eric the Red navigated a thousand years ago. Hundreds of icebergs bobbed on its mirror-like surface. To the east, half way up the valley, a small creek tumbled into a deep rock pool. Behind that saddle lies Lake Tesaq, a pristine Arctic lake that GME plans to fill with nearly a billion tonnes of waste rock. This part of the mine waste would not be the most radioactive, because the company plans to dump this material in a nearby natural basin, with the promise that an 'impervious' layer would prevent leaching into the surrounding habitat.
These mine tailings would contain the majority of the original radioactivity – about 85% in fact – because the miners only want the uranium and the rare earth elements. They would mine and then leave the now highly mobile radioactive contaminants, the progeny from the uranium decay behind: thorium, radium, radon gas, polonium and a horde of other toxins.
Even at very low levels of exposure, ionising radiation is recognised as poisonous: responsible for cancer and non-cancer diseases in humans over vast timespans. This is why my own profession is under growing pressure to reduce exposure of our patients to X-Rays and CT scans in particular – making sure benefit outweighs risk.
It's also why ERA, the proprietors of the Ranger mine in Australia, are legally obliged to isolate the tailings for at least 10,000 years. While this is hardly possible, the mere fact that it is required highlights the severity and longevity of the risk. My Inuit audience in Narsaq was particularly interested to hear the messages I brought from traditional owners like Yvonne Margarula, of the Mirarr people: "The problems always last, but the promises never do". And Jeffrey Lee from Koongara: "I will fight to the end and we will stop it, then it won't continue on for more uranium here in Kakadu".
When GME started touting this project a decade ago, the spot price of uranium was over US$120 per pound and everybody in the extractive industry was breaking open the bubbly in anticipation of the 'nuclear renaissance'. We were told that nuclear power would save the world from anthropogenic carbon-carnage and uranium was a stock-market wunderkind. Then came the global financial crisis and the spot-price halved. And then Fukushima melted and the price halved again. The 'renaissance' didn't materialize at all: the real news today is that there has not been one reactor construction start-up so far this year. Not one. Not even in China, the only place where one could honestly claim there has been significant build in the past decade. Consequently, the uranium price has collapsed down to about US$25 a pound at present.
GME's share price trajectory has mirrored the uranium price – from $65 a share in 2007 to less than 3 cents today. Despite this reality GME continues to wax lyrical about the company's prospects. Two years ago the newly elected Greenland national government rescinded a 30-year ban on mining and exporting uranium ‒ but their majority of just one seat in the 31-seat parliament makes this a fragile promise. Inuit Ataqatigiit holds the other 15 seats and is strongly committed to preventing any mine.
Similar division exists in the region where the ore-body is located. The small town of Narsaq deep in the southern fjords has seen much conflict and distress ever since the Australian mining company came to town. While some locals believe the mine would mean jobs and dollars, many of their neighbours are profoundly suspicious and resistant.
When I reached the mine site I was reminded of Tolkien and of Orcs and Goblins. The Danes who first dug down deep into the mountain side 40 years ago left a great grey door fastened tightly into the mine entrance to deter any curious future visitors. And behind the door lies the booty – the fuel for the world's most dangerous weapons and long-lived industrial waste, buried in the mountain top.
If allowed to, GME would dump a billion tonnes of waste rock in a sapphire lake and hundreds of thousands of gallons of liquid radioactive waste in a shallow ditch at the head of a primeval watershed. Then they would pack up and leave within a few decades. But the wastes and risks they would have generated would not. Some of uranium's radioactive byproducts would be a contamination threat to the surrounding region for tens of thousands of years. And as the Inuit Party and a lot of folks in Narsaq have been trying to tell GME, keeping the door open for a truly green Greenland means keeping the great grey door in the mountain firmly shut on uranium mining.