WASHINGTON — When the largest known deposit of uranium in the United States was discovered in the 1970s in Pittsylvania County, Va., state lawmakers were wary. After some investigation, they imposed an indefinite moratorium on uranium mining.
On Monday, the Supreme Court considered whether that was lawful. A majority of the justices seemed inclined to say yes.
The case, Virginia Uranium v. Warren, No. 16-1275, concerns a possible clash between a federal law, the Atomic Energy Act, and the state moratorium. The federal law regulates what can be done with uranium and the radioactive waste it generates after it is extracted from the earth. If the federal law applies, it would displace the moratorium and allow mining to proceed.
But the federal law regulates only the second and third steps in uranium mining. The first step is extracting the raw ore from the ground. The second is separating the ore from waste rock, or tailings, and concentrating it into so-called yellowcake, which is sold. The third step is storing the tailings, which are radioactive.
By its terms, the state moratorium addressed only extraction, which is beyond the reach of the federal law. State officials said the ban was justified by environmental and economic factors rather than safety concerns linked to radiation.
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