The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Virginia's ban on uranium mining in a 6-3 decision that upsets Virginia Energy Resources Inc.'s hopes to develop the Coles Hill uranium deposit, considered by the company to be the largest undeveloped uranium deposit in the U.S.
The case hinged on the question of whether uranium mining on private lands in the U.S. falls under federal or state authority. Virginia Energy, through its subsidiary Virginia Uranium Inc., argued federal law under the Atomic Energy Act extended powers over uranium mining to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and preempted Virginia from banning uranium mining on private lands in 1982.
But the Supreme Court sided with the state, and previous court rulings on the case, pointing to long-standing constitutional rights held by states over mining on private land.
"True, the [Atomic Energy Act] gives the Nuclear Regulatory Commission significant authority over the milling, transfer, use, and disposal of uranium, as well as the construction and operation of nuclear power plants," Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a lead opinion. "But Congress conspicuously chose to leave untouched the states’ historic authority over the regulation of mining activities on private lands within their borders."
In the ruling Gorsuch noted that federal law explicitly constrains the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's powers to nuclear-related activities that come after uranium is mined.
"And if the federal government wants to control mining of uranium on private land, the [Atomic Energy Act] tells the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] exactly what to do: It may purchase or seize the land by eminent domain and make it federal land," Gorsuch wrote.
A Virginia Uranium spokesperson declined comment, saying the company was still reviewing the decision.
The Supreme Court agreed in May 2018 to hear the case, after a lower court rejected Virginia Energy's challenge to the uranium mining ban.
The Coles Hill deposit was discovered in 1978, according to a technical study of the project on Virginia Energy's website. It has indicated resources of 119.6 million long tons grading 0.056% eU3O8 — a radiometric equivalent of uranium from a total gamma down-hole probe — and inferred resources of 36.3 million long tons grading 0.042% eU3O8.