Supreme Court holds that the federal Atomic Energy Act does not preempt Virginia’s ban on uranium mining

Monday, June 17, 2019 - 11:15am

In Virginia Uranium, Inc. v. Warren, the Supreme Court held 6-3 that the federal Atomic Energy Act does not preempt Virginia’s ban on uranium mining.  The Chamber urged the Court to take up this case at the cert stage and also filed a brief at the merits stage opposing this outcome.

The Atomic Energy Act (AEA) gives the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission exclusive regulatory authority to ensure the safety of uranium processing but leaves the regulation of uranium mining up to the States.  Based on concerns about processing safety, Virginia completely banned uranium mining within its borders.  Virginia Uranium, Inc. argued that the AEA preempts this state mining ban because it is an indirect attempt to regulate the exclusively federal field of nuclear safety.  Both the District Court and the Fourth Circuit rejected the company’s argument.

The Supreme Court affirmed 6-3, but a majority could not agree on the reasoning.  Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh, delivered the judgment of the Court and the lead opinion.  He explained that the AEA reserves the regulation of uranium mining to the States, and their purpose for regulating within that field is legally irrelevant.  Focusing exclusively on the AEA’s text, Justice Gorsuch refused to hold the state law preempted simply because it might serve as an “obstacle” to the achievement of the federal statute’s underlying policy objectives.  Justice Ginsburg concurred, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan.  She agreed with the lead opinion’s bottom line, but indicated that she remained more open to arguments based on legislative motive and obstacle preemption.  The Chief Justice dissented, joined by Justices Breyer and Alito.