Legal challenge to Virginia uranium ban

06 August 2015

A group of companies has filed a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Virginia seeking to overturn the state's 33-year-old uranium mining moratorium.

The lawsuit was filed yesterday in the US District Court for the Western District of Virginia in Danville by law firm Cooper & Kirk on behalf of plaintiffs Virginia Uranium Inc, Virginia Energy Resources Inc, Coles Hill, LLC and Bowen Minerals, LLC.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to declare the state's ban on the development of uranium mining regulations null and void on the grounds that it is invalid under the US Constitution. They contend that Virginia's refusal to develop uranium mining regulations is based on issues related to the processing of uranium ore and, in particular, the long-term storage and management of uranium mill tailings. However, they argue regulatory oversight and management of any uranium mill and the resulting tailings would be under the "clear and exclusive jurisdiction" of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Thus, they contend, the ban on uranium mining is preempted by federal law and is therefore invalid.

US states can take responsibility for licensing byproduct, source, or special nuclear materials used or possessed within their border by entering into agreements with the NRC. Uranium mining comes under the remit of Virginia's 2009 agreement with the NRC, but the federal regulator retained authority with respect to processing facilities.

Attorney Charles Cooper, who filed the lawsuit, said that Virginia's ban was in direct conflict with federal law. "The Commonwealth cannot refuse to develop state mining regulations based on concerns over activities that are permissible under federal law and under the clear jurisdiction of the federal government," he said in a statement. "We urge the Commonwealth to move forward promptly to develop strict and rigorous regulations for those activities over which the Commonwealth does have jurisdiction, namely uranium mining."

The Coles Hill uranium deposit in southern Virginia's Pittsylvania county, first discovered in 1978, contains measured resources of 3260 tU and indicated resources of 42,800 tU. Virginia Uranium Inc was granted an exploration permit in 2007, and the state had been formally reconsidering the moratorium since 2008, commissioning the National Academy of Sciences to prepare a report on the scientific, environmental, human health and safety, and regulatory aspects of uranium mining, processing, and reclamation. In 2012, state governor Bob McDonnell also commissioned a high-level working group to look into a potential policy and regulatory framework for uranium mining in the state.

Virginia Uranium Inc president and CEO Walter Coles said that the decision to take legal action after eight years of working towards the repeal of the moratorium had not been taken lightly. "We had hoped that our steady progress and good faith cooperation with Commonwealth legislators and officials would continue under Governor McAuliffe's administration," he said, referring to a 2014 change in governorship. "But that was not to be. Soon after his election, Governor McAuliffe made it abundantly clear that during his administration he would veto any legislative remedy that came before him. In the face of this ultimatum, and in light of our years of dedicated efforts, we have no course but to seek a legal resolution," Coles said.

Despite its moratorium on uranium mining, Virginia is home to four operating reactors at two nuclear power plants, numerous nuclear companies and government nuclear-related facilities.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News