460 U.S. 766 (1983), 81-2399, Metropolitan Edison v. People Against Nuclear Energy

Docket Nº:No. 81-2399
Citation:460 U.S. 766, 103 S.Ct. 1556, 75 L.Ed.2d 534
Party Name:Metropolitan Edison v. People Against Nuclear Energy
Case Date:April 19, 1983
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 766

460 U.S. 766 (1983)

103 S.Ct. 1556, 75 L.Ed.2d 534

Metropolitan Edison

v.

People Against Nuclear Energy

No. 81-2399

United States Supreme Court

April 19, 1983

Argued March 1, 1983

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioner Metropolitan Edison Co. (Metropolitan) owns two licensed nuclear plants at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pa. On a day when one plant (TMI-1) was shut down for refueling, the other plant (TMI-2) suffered a serious accident that damaged the reactor and caused widespread concern. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) then ordered Metropolitan to keep TMI-1 shut down until it could be determined whether the plant could be operated safely, and published a notice of hearing that included an invitation to interested parties to submit briefs on whether psychological harm or other indirect effects of the accident or of renewed operation of TMI-1 should be considered. Respondent People Against Nuclear Energy (PANE), an association of residents of the Harrisburg area who are opposed to further operation of either TMI reactor, responded to this invitation, contending that restarting TMI-1 would cause both severe psychological damage to persons living in the vicinity and serious damage to the stability, cohesiveness, and wellbeing of neighboring communities. When the NRC decided not to take evidence of these contentions, PANE filed a petition for review in the Court of Appeals, contending that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), inter alia, required the NRC to address its contentions. The court held that the NRC improperly failed to consider whether the risk of an accident at TMI-1 might cause harm to the psychological health and community wellbeing of residents of the area surrounding Three Mile Island.

Held: The NRC need not consider PANE's contentions. Pp. 771-779.

(a) Section 102(C) of NEPA -- which provides that where an agency action significantly affects the quality of the human environment, the agency must evaluate the "environmental impact" and any unavoidable adverse "environmental effects" of its proposed action -- does not require the agency to assess every impact or effect of its proposed action, but

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only the impact or effect on the environment. The statute's context shows that Congress was talking [103 S.Ct. 1558] about the physical environment. Although NEPA states its goals in sweeping terms of human health and welfare, these goals are ends that Congress has chosen to pursue by means of protecting the physical environment. Pp. 772-773.

(b) NEPA does not require agencies to evaluate the effects of risk, qua risk. The terms "environmental effects" and "environmental impact" in § 102(C) should be read to include a requirement of a reasonably close causal relationship between a change in the physical environment and the effect at issue. Here, the federal action that affects the environment is permitting renewed operation of T-1. The direct effects of this action include release of low-level radiation, increased fog, and the release of warm water into the Susquehanna River, all of which effects the NRC has considered. The NRC has also considered the risk of a nuclear accident. But a risk of an accident is not an effect on the physical environment. In a causal chain from renewed operation of TMI-1 to psychological health damage, the element of risk and its perception by PANE's members are necessary middle links. That element of risk lengthens the causal chain beyond NEPA's reach. Pp. 773-777.

(c) Regardless of the gravity of the harm alleged by PANE, if a harm does not have a sufficiently close connection to the physical environment, NEPA does not apply. P. 778.

(d) That PANE's claim was made in the wake of the accident at TMI-2 is irrelevant. NEPA is not directed at the effects of past accidents, and does not create a remedial scheme for past federal actions. Pp. 778-779.

219 U.S.App.D.C. 358, 678 F.2d 222, reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 779.

Page 768

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in these cases is whether petitioner Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) complied with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, 83 Stat. 852, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq. (1976 ed. and Supp. V) (NEPA), when it considered whether to permit petitioner Metropolitan Edison Co. to resume operation of the Three Mile Island Unit 1 nuclear powerplant (TMI-1). The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that the NRC improperly failed to consider whether the risk of an accident at TMI-1 might cause harm to the psychological health and community wellbeing of residents of the surrounding area. 219 U.S.App.D.C. 358, 678 F.2d 222 (1982). We reverse.

Metropolitan owns two nuclear powerplants at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pa. Both of these plants were licensed by the NRC after extensive proceedings, which included preparation of Environmental Impact Statements (EIS's). On March 28, 1979, TMI-1 was not operating; it had been shut down for refueling. TMI-2 was operating, and it suffered a serious accident that damaged the reactor.1 Although, as it turned out, no dangerous radiation was released,

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the accident caused widespread concern. The Governor of Pennsylvania recommended an evacuation of all pregnant women and small children, and many area residents did leave their homes for several days.

After the accident, the NRC ordered Metropolitan to keep TMI-1 shut down until it had an opportunity to determine whether the plant could be operated safely. 44 Fed.Reg. 40461 (1979). The NRC then published a notice of hearing specifying several safety-related issues for consideration. Metropolitan Edison Co., 10 N.R.C. 141 (1979). The notice stated that the Commission had not determined whether to consider [103 S.Ct. 1559] psychological harm or other indirect effects of the accident or of renewed operation of TMI-1. It invited interested parties to submit briefs on this issue. Id. at 148.

Respondent People Against Nuclear Energy (PANE) intervened and responded to this invitation. PANE is an association of residents of the Harrisburg area who are opposed to further operation of either TMI reactor. PANE contended that restarting TMI-1 would cause both severe psychological health damage to persons living in the vicinity and serious damage to the stability, cohesiveness, and wellbeing of the neighboring communities.2

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The NRC decided not to take evidence concerning PANE's contentions. Metropolitan Edison Co., 12 N.R.C. 607 (1980); Metropolitan Edison Co., 14 N.R.C. 593 (1981).3 PANE filed a petition for review in the Court of Appeals, contending that both NEPA and the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, 68 Stat. 921, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2011 et seq. (1976 ed. and Supp. V), require the NRC to address its contentions.4 Metropolitan intervened on the side of the NRC.

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The Court of Appeals concluded that the Atomic Energy Act does not require the NRC to address PANE's contentions. 219 U.S.App.D.C. at 385-389, 678 F.2d at 249-253. It did find, however, that NEPA requires the NRC to evaluate "the potential psychological health effects of operating" TMI-1 which have arisen since the original EIS was prepared. Id. at 371, 678 F.2d at 235. It also held that, if the NRC finds that significant new circumstances or information exist on this subject, it shall prepare a

supplemental [EIS] which considers not only the effects on psychological [103 S.Ct. 1560] health but also effects on the wellbeing of the communities surrounding Three Mile Island.

Id. at 371-372, 678 F.2d at 235-236. We granted certiorari.5 459 U.S. 966 (1982).

All the parties agree that effects on human health can be cognizable under NEPA, and that human health may include psychological health. The Court of Appeals thought these propositions were enough to complete a syllogism that disposes of the case: NEPA requires agencies to consider effects on health. An effect on psychological health is an effect on health. Therefore, NEPA requires agencies to consider the effects on psychological health asserted by PANE. See 219 U.S.App.D.C. at 364, 678 F.2d at 228. PANE, using similar reasoning, contends that, because the psychological health damage to its members would be caused by a change in the environment (renewed operation of TMI-1), NEPA requires the NRC to consider that damage. See Brief for

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Respondents 23. Although these arguments are appealing at first glance, we believe they skip over an essential step in the analysis. They do not consider the closeness of the relationship between the change in the environment and the "effect" at issue.

Section 102(C) of NEPA, 83 Stat. 853, 42 U.S.C. § 4332(C), directs all federal agencies to

include in every recommendation or report on proposals for legislation and other major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment, a detailed statement by the responsible official on --

(i) the environmental impact of the proposed action, [and]

(ii) any adverse environmental effects which cannot be avoided should the proposal be implemented. . . .

To paraphrase the statutory language in light of the facts of this case, where an agency action significantly affects the quality of the human environment, the agency must evaluate the "environmental impact" and any unavoidable adverse environmental effects of its proposal. The theme of § 102 is sounded by the adjective "environmental:" NEPA does not require the agency to assess every impact or effect of its proposed action, but only the impact or effect on the environment. If we were to seize the word "environmental" out of its context and give it the broadest possible...

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