The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to consider whether Virginia has the right to ban a uranium mine, reviving discussion about a deposit on the state’s southern border that’s said to be the nation’s richest source of the mineral used in nuclear reactors.
The massive uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County, located at the mid-point of the state’s border with North Carolina, was discovered decades ago, but in the 1980s the General Assembly prohibited mining out of concerns about radioactivity.
After several efforts to study the safety of digging out the ore, lawmakers have kept the ban in place for more than 30 years. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D, announced shortly after being elected in 2013 that he would veto any legislation that sought to permit uranium mining. Since then, the company interested in opening a mine has given up on legislation and taken its case to the legal system.
“Obviously, they’re thrilled that the court is going to hear the case,” Julie Rautio, a spokeswoman for Virginia Uranium Inc., said on Monday.
Lower courts had ruled against Virginia Uranium and in favor of the state’s ban. But the company asked the Supreme Court to review a split decision issued last year by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
That request got a boost last month when the U.S. Solicitor General weighed in on behalf of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and supported the company’s call for the high court to take up the case.
The federal government argued that the state has no jurisdiction to prohibit the mine because such activities are regulated by the NRC. The Atomic Energy Act gives the federal commission the power to oversee all matters of radiological safety, the government argued, so the state cannot ban mining over its fear of radiation hazards.
Allowing Virginia to have such power “creates a division of authority over an issue of profound national importance – the basic allocation of regulatory power over atomic energy and radiological safety and access to a strategically critical national resource,” the Solicitor General argued in its brief with the court.
But Virginia has maintained that it does have jurisdiction, and that the Atomic Energy Act was aimed at uranium mining on federal lands. The Pittsylvania deposit, near the town of Chatham, is privately owned and so outside of federal jurisdiction, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has argued.