For decades, the commonwealth has been having an on-again, off-again debate over uranium mining. With the filing of a federal lawsuit by Virginia Uranium Inc., the debate is officially back on.
The lawsuit makes a straightforward claim: The Atomic Energy Act vests all authority for radiation-related regulation in the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Virginia can write rules for a uranium mine on any number of grounds, such as hours of operation or surety bonds.
But it cannot regulate radiation safety matters, which are the exclusive province of the feds. And yet, the plaintiffs claim, Virginia’s ban on uranium mining is based almost exclusively on concerns about the hazards presented by radioactive tailings from the mining process.
That much will ring true to anyone who has followed the debate over the moratorium. In its resolution in support of keeping the ban, the Danville-Pittsylvania Chamber of Commerce cited “significant questions around whether uranium can be mined and milled safely in the commonwealth.”
Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he opposed uranium mining because “my job is to make sure that our communities and our citizenry are safe.” The Southern Environmental Law Center and countless others emphasized passages from a study by the National Academies of Science regarding “surface groundwater contamination” from “tailings repositories”; the “risk of cancer from drinking water”; the lingering of “radiation in uranium tailings for thousands of years”; and so on.
Fears like that are wildly overblown. But even if you believe them, the lawsuit claims they are not Virginia’s problem to fix: Washington, not Richmond, holds all the authority to address them. Therefore, the state’s ban on uranium mining must be repealed.
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