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A group of companies argues that Virginia's ban on mining for the radioactive metal runs afoul of federal law.
Whether Virginia's ban on uranium mining is allowed under a federal atomic energy law is the central question in a case the U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Monday to consider.
Virginia Uranium, Inc. and three affiliated companies petitioned the court to hear the case after the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the state moratorium last year. State lawmakers first imposed the ban on uranium mining in 1982 and it has remained in effect since then.
The companies argue that the ban runs afoul of the federal Atomic Energy Act because it was motivated by safety concerns that involve activities the federal government should regulate under the law.
These activities include the "milling," or processing, of mined uranium ore, and the safe handling and storage of leftover waste, or "tailings."
But the state counters that the Atomic Energy Act does not cover conventional uranium mining on nonfederal lands and that it's therefore free to regulate, or prohibit, mining at the site in question.
Uranium is a radioactive metal that serves as fuel for nuclear power plants and is also used to manufacture atomic weapons.
The Trump administration urged the Supreme Court to take the case. It favors the companies' position and described the appeals court decision as "incorrect."
A brief submitted by U.S. Solicitor General Noel John Francisco and other federal officials warns that under the appeals court ruling, states could "effectively prevent federally regulated activities" they believe to be unsafe, "by erecting 'bottlenecks' at antecedent stages that are not themselves subject to federal regulation."
"States will likely continue to face pressures to restrict or prohibit private nuclear-energy development," the brief adds.
The companies fighting the ban own a deposit of about 119 million pounds of uranium ore that lies beneath the ground in Pittsylvania County, in south central Virginia, near the border with North Carolina.
This site, known as Coles Hill, is the largest known uranium deposit in the U.S., according to the companies.
Uranium deposits were discovered at the site in the 1970s. Virginia Uranium ramped up lobbying efforts to repeal the mining ban after uranium prices increased, a court brief filed by the state says.
In 2015, the companies began their court battle against the mining moratorium, filing a lawsuit in federal district court. The district court dismissed their complaint.
The Supreme Court is expected to consider the case during its next term, which begins in October.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.