US Supreme Court upholds Virginia's ban on uranium mining

The case thrust Virginia into the centre of a national debate over uranium mining.

    While uranium remains a vital resource for electricity and national defence, Virginia enacted its ban on uranium mining amid concerns about environmental and public safety hazards [Leonhard Foeger /Reuters]
    While uranium remains a vital resource for electricity and national defence, Virginia enacted its ban on uranium mining amid concerns about environmental and public safety hazards [Leonhard Foeger /Reuters]

    The largest-known United States uranium deposit will remain firmly underground after the US Supreme Court on Monday upheld a ban on mining the radioactive metal in the state of Virginia.

    The ruling rebuffed a challenge that was made to a 1982 statewide moratorium and that was backed by the administration of US President Donald Trump.

    In a 6-3 decision that underscored states' rights, justices affirmed a lower court's ruling that threw out a lawsuit by Virginia Uranium Inc and other owners of the massive deposit, which is valued by the company at $6bn and which lies beneath private land in southern Virginia.

    Virginia Uranium Inc, seeking to exploit the deposit, contested Virginia's power to enact the ban, saying the policy should have been pre-empted by federal law governing nuclear energy.

    Virginia Uranium is a subsidiary of Virginia Energy Resources, which is based in Vancouver, Canada.

    The dispute focused on whether the federal Atomic Energy Act (AEA) of 1954, which regulates the development of nuclear energy, preempts Virginia's mining ban under the US Constitution's so-called Supremacy Clause, which holds that federal law generally trumps state law.

    The Trump administration had backed the company's challenge to Virginia's law. The ruling was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who Trump appointed to the court in 2017.

    The case thrust Virginia into the centre of a national debate over uranium mining. It pitted the rights of states - specifically to control their natural resources and protect the environment - against federal law and the need to maintain access to raw materials critical for nuclear weapons and power plants.

    While uranium remains a vital resource for electricity and national defence, Virginia enacted its ban on uranium mining amid concerns about environmental and public safety hazards.

    "This is a big win for the health and safety of Virginians and our environment," Virginia state Attorney General Mark Herring said in a statement, adding 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."

    Virginia Uranium expressed disappointment with the ruling.

    "We continue to think that Virginia's uranium mining ban is both unlawful and unwise," the company said in a statement, adding that it is reviewing other options to challenge the state's "confiscation" of its mineral holdings.

    The ruling could entice other states to restrict the availability of source materials or create financial barriers to nuclear energy development, potentially reducing uranium production.

    At the centre of the dispute is the uranium deposit located beneath a privately owned estate in Virginia's Pittsylvania County, near the North Carolina border.

    The AEA gives the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission the sole power to regulate radiation safety standards for two key steps in the production of nuclear fuel: milling uranium ore and disposing of waste byproducts known as tailings. But it does not cover conventional uranium mining on non-federal land.

    Gorsuch, who announced Monday's ruling from the bench, said, "The federal government has no authority to regulate mining itself, and the AEA does nothing to withdraw that regulatory power from the states."

    Dissenting Opinion

    Chief Justice John Roberts, writing in dissent, said the ruling could enable states to target uranium development in various ways, such as preventing counties from providing rubbish collection or fire protection to nuclear facilities.

    So long as a state "is not boneheaded enough to express its real purpose in the statute," Roberts wrote, "the state will have free rein to subvert Congress's judgment on nuclear safety".

    Virginia had the support of several other states concerned about protecting states' rights, including Indiana, Texas, Massachusetts and Oregon.

    Virginia Uranium had touted the economic benefits of uranium mining for Virginia, saying it could create more than a thousand jobs annually and pump billions of dollars into the local economy.

    The company emphasised uranium's critical importance in creating nuclear weapons and powering US nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, noting that most uranium used in the US is imported, sometimes from "geopolitical rivals" such as Russia.

    The plaintiffs, including Cole Hill LLC and Bowen Minerals LLC, sued Virginia in 2015. The Richmond, Virginia-based 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a trial judge's ruling to toss out the lawsuit in 2017 before the case made its way to the Supreme Court.

    SOURCE: Reuters