Greenland's parliament has voted in favour of removing a 25-year ban on uranium mining, paving the way for an industrial boom that the Arctic island hopes will help it gain independence from former colonial master Denmark.
Greenland, a semi-autonomous part of Denmark, wants to step up its mining of rare earths, valuable elements used in the production of smartphones, weapons systems and other modern technologies. Uranium is often found mixed into rare earths, so the ban was blocking key mining activity in southern Greenland.
An Australian company has estimated it could extract up to 40,000 tons of rare earth metals per year.
In a 15-14 vote with two absentees, the parliament backed the centre-left governing coalition's plan to remove the ban.
Greenland's government yesterday gave a British-based company, London Mining, a licence to extract iron. The company is seeking investments to develop an iron mine north east of Nuuk, the capital.
Many Greenlanders want to use the island's mineral resources as a way to reduce dependency on a subsidy from Denmark which accounts for about two-thirds of the island's economy.
Denmark is open to allowing Greenland greater independence, but there is no way the island can support its current costs without the subsidy.
Denmark's foreign trade minister Nick Haekkerup sought to ease concerns that Greenland might sell the uranium it finds in the rare earths mining. He said Greenland cannot decide that alone because Denmark still handles its security and foreign policy.
Jens-Erik Kirkegaard, Greenland's minister for natural resources, said after the vote that several laws need to be changed before exports of rare earths can start "in a couple of years or more".
The government wants to introduce royalties on the mining industry and revise a law that would allow an influx of foreign labour.
Experts estimate that a mine in southern Greenland could contain the largest rare-earth metals deposit outside China, which currently accounts for more than 90% of global production.
Environmental activists criticised the lifting of the ban.
A Greenpeace spokesman in Copenhagen, Jon Burgwald, said: "It can have great consequences for the environment and the people of Greenland, so we suggest that specific maximum limits on how much radiation, wastewater discharge etc are decided."