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Sweden makes major effort to develop its own supply of minerals used in tech products

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

We're going to take a trip deep underground to a vast mine in Sweden holding minerals that are key in making tech products, from phones to electric cars. Around the world, countries are scrambling for them. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam went to see the enormous effort Sweden is making to develop its own supply.

ULRIKA HUHTANISKA: So one of the rescue chambers are over there.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Ulrika Huhtaniska shifts into low gear as the pickup truck we're riding in heads deep into the LKAB mine. She's a communications person at this state-owned iron ore mine, located in Sweden's northernmost city, Kiruna, north of the Arctic Circle. It'll be a half-hour drive down to the bottom, and it's a strange experience.

OK. So we're heading down lower now. It gets drier as well. You can feel it on your skin. But it's still dark. There's quite a bit of dust in the air now. We're going down, down, down.

Huhtaniska says there are about 25 miles worth of underground tunnels. She's used to being in this environment.

HUHTANISKA: The first time it felt - I wasn't scared, but it's an awkward feeling.

NORTHAM: Yeah. OK. Now as we're getting lower, I can feel my ears popping, but we're still - we still have a long way to go till we get to the bottom.

The tunnel is dark with a low ceiling, and it twists and turns as we descend. Our headlights pick up the reflectors on the reinforced gray stone walls. Finally, we reach the bottom.

So we have arrived now. We are now 4,000 feet under the earth right now, and this is actually quite a brightly lit place. And there's some miners here, and it looks like they're just waiting outside the cafeteria 'cause there's got to be food around here.

(CROSSTALK)

NORTHAM: The Kiruna mine is already one of the world's largest sources of iron ore, but they've made a game changing discovery here. Earlier this year, Sweden announced that mixed in with the iron ore were what's known as rare earths, which are critical for the transition to clean energy. They're used in motors that power wind turbines and electric vehicles. The discovery led the company to believe there's a huge deposit further underground.

LAURA LAURI: We knew that there was something out there, but we didn't know how much and at what depth and things like this. So it was still quite much an unknown.

NORTHAM: Laura Lauri, a field exploration manager at the mine, says LKAB was aware of some rare earth deposits back in the 1960s as it was mining the iron ore. Lauri says three years ago, they started taking a closer look. The results were good - 1.3 million tons of rare earths. Lauri says it's the largest reported deposit in Europe.

LAURI: We have these numbers for this deposit. We know that this much we have.

NORTHAM: But exploration is a long process. In a small office in the vast underground complex, Jim Lidstrom heads up a team digging five miles of tunnels towards the rare earths. He says they clear just 15 feet a day.

JIM LIDSTROM: It's drilling, blasting. It's like putting cement on the walls to do reinforcement.

NORTHAM: Right. So how long a job will this be?

LIDSTROM: My guess would be around maybe 6 to 7 years until the exploration tunnel is done. Then the real work starts.

NORTHAM: And that'll be extracting the rare earths, if the company decides there are enough of good quality to make the mining economically viable. So all this effort is still a bit of a gamble, but it could pay off big for Sweden.

Back on the surface in Stockholm, Ebba Busch is the minister for Energy, Business and Industry. She says Sweden needs to be energy independent, a message driven home after Russia cut off energy supplies to Europe.

EBBA BUSCH: It's been a harsh reminder to choose your friends wisely. And I would say that Sweden, we have really drawn a very tough lesson in terms of being so highly dependent off of Russia.

NORTHAM: But Sweden is also concerned about dependence on China, especially its grip on critical metals and minerals like the rare earths. Erika Ingvald, the head of Mineral Information and Mining Industry at the Geological Survey of Sweden in the college town of Uppsala, says Sweden currently gets 98% of its rare earth supply from China.

ERIKA INGVALD: We are so dependent on minerals from China. China is known for using their raw materials, for instance, in geopolitical challenges, if you like, as a weapon.

NORTHAM: Earlier this month, China started limiting exports of two rare earths, gallium and germanium, which are used in semiconductors and electric vehicles. China also dominates rare earth processing, says Ingvald.

INGVALD: The idea here is now to increase the processing capacity in Europe. So, for instance, LKAB has bought into a company in Norway who are going to do this processing of those minerals, so we keep the value chain in Europe.

NORTHAM: But that could have a cost, not just in money and investment, but on the environment here. The mining is taking place on Indigenous lands.

MATTI BLIND-BERG: So I'm just going to feed my horse, and then we could sit down and talk.

NORTHAM: Matti Blind-Berg runs a small ranch about 25 miles from Kiruna.

BLIND-BERG: Well, what's special with the Icelandic race is they have a - they are five-gaited. Normally, horses have - what do you say? - three.

NORTHAM: Berg is a Sami, the main Indigenous group here in Sweden's Lapland, and chairman of the national reindeer herding association. He says Sweden knew about the rare earth deposits, so making a big deal of the find now is a public relations ploy.

BLIND-BERG: They want to put pressure on the Swedish politicians to take shortcuts in the permission process because it's a quite long process from find of the mineral to really mining it. So they want to short up this time.

NORTHAM: We move over to a table alongside a clear blue lake. It's an idyllic setting. Berg worries about what mining the rare earths will do to the Arctic environment and the reindeer herding.

BLIND-BERG: More people, more human activities disturb the wildlife. You have more infrastructure coming in - more cars, more trucks, more trails, more railroads.

NORTHAM: Berg says the Sami community has held discussions with the Swedish government and is looking for recognition of its land and water rights. But with so much riding on the rare earths for Sweden's energy future, the mining continues.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Kiruna, Sweden.

(SOUNDBITE OF DPSHT AND TEZPU'S "MINUTIAE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. 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.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.