Law School Case Brief
Va. Uranium, Inc. v. Warren - 139 S. Ct. 1894 (2019)
The Supremacy Clause supplies a rule of priority. It provides that the Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, are the supreme law of the land, any thing in the Constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding. U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2.
Plaintiff Virginia Uranium, Inc. ("VUI") wanted to mine raw uranium ore from a site near Coles Hill, Virginia. However, Virginia law flatly prohibited uranium mining in the Commonwealth. Consequently, VUI filed a lawsuit in federal district court against several defendants, including John Warren, in his official capacity as Director of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, alleging that under the Federal Constitution's Supremacy Clause, the federal Atomic Energy Act ("AEA") preempted state uranium mining laws, such as like Virginia's law, and ensconced the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ("NRC") as the lone regulator in the field. VUI argued that because the NRC’s regulations said nothing about uranium mining, it remained free to mine in Virginia or elsewhere. Both the district court and federal court of appeals rejected the VUI's argument, finding that while the AEA afforded the NRC considerable authority over the nuclear fuel life cycle, it offered no hint that Congress sought to strip states of their traditional power to regulate mining on private lands within their borders. VUI was granted a writ of certiorari.
Under the Constitution's Supremacy Clause, did the federal AEA preempt state uranium mining laws?
The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals. The Court held that the AEA did not preempt a state law banning uranium mining because, while the AEA gave the NRC significant authority over the milling, transfer, use, and disposal of uranium, as well as the construction and operation of nuclear power plants, Congress conspicuously chose to leave untouched the states' historic authority over the regulation of mining activities on private lands within their borders. Under § 2021(k) of the AEA, it was stipulated that states remained free to regulate the activities discussed in § 2021 for purposes other than nuclear safety without the NRC’s consent. As such, the Court held that the Virginia's mining ban was not preempted and that conventional uranium mining on private land was not federally regulated because federal authorities had long read 42 U.S.C.S. § 2092 to preclude federal regulation of conventional uranium mining.
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