AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Cell phones, wind turbines, hybrid cars; to make any of these things you need Rare Earth elements. There are 17 of them, all metals, on the Periodic Table with names like: promethium and scandium. Right now, China enjoys a near-monopoly on the global supply. And that's sparked a race to find new sources of these rare elements. One particularly large deposit is in Greenland.
But Sidsel Overgaard reports the metals there come with strings attached - radioactive ones.
KAREN HANGHOJ: What you can see here in the southern region here, is you have a big pink region.
SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: Karen Hanghøj, a peppy scientist with Denmark's Geological Survey, is pointing to the southern tip of Greenland on a colorful map hanging in her office.
HANGHOJ: And then within the pink region, you see you have all these little purple dots. And what the purple dots are is a later period of rifting. These complexes have these weird chemistries and have these very, very strange minerals in them.
OVERGAARD: Including Rare Earth elements.
HANGHOJ: But the deposit - actually, this rock over here, if I can just grab a rock.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)
OVERGAARD: The hefty rock Hanghøj lifts off her desk comes from that pink and purple polka-dotted region, though the rock itself is nondescript, except for one shiny black nugget.
HANGHOJ: This one here, it's called Steenstrupine. And that mineral has all the Rare Earths, or most of the Rare Earths, but also most of the uranium.
OVERGAARD: Uranium that would therefore have to mined, along with those coveted Rare Earths. There are a few problems with that. First, Greenland has a ban on uranium extraction. The so-called zero tolerance policy was put in place 25 years ago, when the country was more tightly controlled by nuclear-averse Denmark.
Since then, Greenland has taken on a new level of self-governance, including jurisdiction over its own natural resources. And this month, Greenland's Parliament appears likely to lift the zero tolerance policy. That could open the door for uranium mining not only as a by-product, but also as a primary product. By some estimates, Greenland has enough of the radioactive stuff to make it one of the top five exporters in the world. And that could be a problem for Denmark, which is still responsible for Greenland's foreign policy and security.
CINDY VESTERGAARD: The Greenlandic position seems to be that as long as we are exporting for peaceful purposes, then Denmark does not need to be engaged.
OVERGAARD: Cindy Vestergaard is with the Danish Institute for International Studies.
VESTERGAARD: The challenge with that is that how will Denmark know it is being used for peaceful purposes if they are not involved? And so it's one thing if we're abolishing a policy. But what is going to be the policy instead of that? And that is something where Denmark and Greenland, for the first time in their history, really need to actually start engaging in a discussion that they have not had up to this point.
OVERGAARD: And then there's the environment. This spring, a coalition of 48 non-governmental organizations from around the world called on Greenland to uphold the zero tolerance policy, citing the potential for radioactive pollution in a delicate Arctic ecosystem.
And members of Greenland's opposition party, like Sara Olsvig, say the public still doesn't really understand the potential consequences of uranium mining.
SARA OLSVIG: We have a lot of other choices in Greenland of other minerals, other resources - living and nonliving - that we can export. And our opinion is that we should go for those other resources instead of rushing through a decision on uranium, not even knowing if it, in the long run, will pay off. We don't even know the full picture of what things we would have to build to just monitor a big, open pit uranium mines in Greenland.
OVERGAARD: But for others, mining and the economic freedom it represents cannot come fast enough. Technically, Greenland could declare independence from Denmark any time. But without new sources of income, the country remains tethered to its annual Danish subsidy of roughly half a billion dollars.
Doris Jakobsen, with the ruling Greenlandic Party, says she's tired of hearing what others say her country can and can't do.
DORIS JAKOBSEN: (Through Translator) I can't accept that Greenland should become a museum. Those NGOs also say that it should be forbidden to sell our seals, forbidden to whale, forbidden to extract oil, forbidden to extract uranium. You can't limit everything. Greenland needs economic development.
OVERGAARD: Whatever happens in regard to uranium, this issue has raised the decibel level of discussion about Greenland's future. And if there's one thing both the ruling and opposition parties can agree on, it's that any movement is good if it leads to independence.
For NPR, I'm Sidsel Overgaard in Copenhagen.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.