Supreme Court upholds Virginia’s ban on uranium mining

The statue "Contemplation of Justice" sits outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington. (Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld Virginia’s ban on uranium mining after decades of wrangling over the issue.

“Congress conspicuously chose to leave untouched the states’ historic authority over the regulation of mining activities on private lands within their borders,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch for the court. “We are hardly free to extend a federal statute to a sphere Congress was well aware of but chose to leave alone.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito filed a dissenting opinion.

The court’s ruling halts an effort by Virginia Uranium, Inc. to mine the valuable ore, used in the production of fuel for nuclear power plants, at Coles Hill, an area of Pittsylvania County that is home to the United States’ largest untapped uranium deposit.

Virginia has had a moratorium on uranium mining since 1982, after the discovery of the deposits raised concerns about the public health and environmental effects of mining the radioactive material. Thirty years after that moratorium was established, a bill to lift the ban in the 2013 General Assembly session was eventually withdrawn when a high level of opposition made it clear that the proposal would not make it out of committee.

Virginia Uranium, Inc., sued the commonwealth in 2015 on the grounds that the state’s moratorium was preempted by federal law. It asked the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia to require the state to grant uranium mining permits.

The district court sided with the commonwealth, as did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

The petitioners’ arguments centered on the claim that, under the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, the federal Atomic Energy Act should preempt, or override, the state’s moratorium, and that the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission should be the only regulator of uranium mining in the country.

The Supreme Court rejected both arguments. Federal statute, it declared, gives the NRC “extensive and sometimes exclusive authority to regulate nearly every aspect of the nuclear fuel life cycle except mining.” Quoting an amicus brief from a 2006 case, the court concluded that “the agency’s grip takes hold only ‘at the mill, rather than at the mine.’”

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring called the Court’s verdict “a big win for the health and safety of Virginians and our environment.”

“The Supreme Court has now confirmed that we are well within our rights as a state to decide that a risky, potentially dangerous activity like uranium mining is not for us,” he said in a statement.