Metropolitan Edison Company v. People Against Nuclear Energy United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission v. People Against Nuclear Energy, Nos. 81-2399

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtREHNQUIST
Citation103 S.Ct. 1556,460 U.S. 766,75 L.Ed.2d 534
Decision Date19 April 1983
Docket NumberNos. 81-2399,82-358
PartiesMETROPOLITAN EDISON COMPANY, et al., Petitioners v. PEOPLE AGAINST NUCLEAR ENERGY et al. UNITED STATES NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION, et al., Petitioners, v. PEOPLE AGAINST NUCLEAR ENERGY et al

460 U.S. 766
103 S.Ct. 1556
75 L.Ed.2d 534
METROPOLITAN EDISON COMPANY, et al., Petitioners

v.

PEOPLE AGAINST NUCLEAR ENERGY et al. UNITED STATES NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION, et al., Petitioners, v. PEOPLE AGAINST NUCLEAR ENERGY et al.

Nos. 81-2399, 82-358.
Argued March 1, 1983.
Decided April 19, 1983.
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 well-being 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 well-being 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

Page 767

only the impact or effect on the environment. The statute's context shows that Congress was talking 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 TMI-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.

Paul M. Bator, Cambridge, Mass., for petitioners.

Page 768

William S. Jordan, III, Washington, D.C., for respondents.

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, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq. (NEPA), when it considered whether to permit petitioner Metropolitan Edison Co. to resume operation of the Three Mile Island Unit 1 nuclear power plant (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 well-being of residents of the surrounding area. 678 F.2d 222 (CADC 1982). We reverse.

Metropolitan owns two nuclear power plants at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Both of these plants were licensed by the NRC after extensive proceedings, which included preparation of Environmental Impact Statements (EIS). 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 re-

Page 769

leased, 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. 10 N.R.C. 141 (1979). The notice stated that the Commission had not determined whether to consider 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.

Petitioner 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 well-being of the neighboring communities.2

Page 770

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, 42 U.S.C. § 2011 et seq., require the NRC to address its contentions.4 Metropolitan intervened on the side of the NRC.

Page 771

The Court of Appeals concluded that the Atomic Energy Act does not require the NRC to address PANE's contentions. 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 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 health but also effects on the well being of the communities surrounding Three Mile Island." Id., at 235-236. We granted certiorari.5 --- U.S. ----, 103 S.Ct. 292, 74 L.Ed.2d 276 (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 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

Page 772

Respondent 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, 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 definition, the words "adverse environmental effects" might embrace virtually any consequence of a governmental action that some one thought "adverse." But we think the context of the statute shows that Congress was talking about the physical environment—the world around us, so to speak. NEPA was...

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183 practice notes
  • Kootenai Tribe of Idaho v. Veneman, No. 01-35472.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • December 12, 2002
    ...Roadless Rule will have a demonstrable impact on the physical environment. See Metropolitan Edison Co. v. People Against Nuclear Energy, 460 U.S. 766, 772, 103 S.Ct. 1556, 75 L.Ed.2d 534 (1983). The Forest Service's Roadless initiative thus required an EIS under We next address whether the ......
  • Friends of Boundary Waters Wilderness v. Dombeck, Nos. 97-3282
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (8th Circuit)
    • January 7, 1999
    ...standing to assert their NEPA claims. The defendants assert that the language of Metropolitan Edison Co. v. People Against Nuclear Energy, 460 U.S. 766, 772, 103 S.Ct. 1556, 75 L.Ed.2d 534 (1983), supports their contention that the Outfitters lack standing under NEPA. In a discussion concer......
  • Preserve Poway v. City of Poway, D066635
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • March 9, 2016
    ...assess psychological impacts caused by a proposed project. For example, in Metropolitan Edison Co. v. People Against Nuclear Energy (1983) 460 U.S. 766, 103 S.Ct. 1556, 75 L.Ed.2d 534, the Supreme Court held that possible psychological harm to nearby residents resulting 245 Cal.App.4th 581f......
  • Sierra Club v. Norton, No. CIV.A. 02-258CBC.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Southern District of Alabama
    • June 19, 2002
    ...environment" has been defined as the physical or natural environment. See e.g. Metropolitan Edison Co. v. People Against Nuclear Energy, 460 U.S. 766, 103 S.Ct. 1556, 75 L.Ed.2d 534 (1983). However, where an action has a primary impact on the physical environment, it has been held that fact......
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168 cases
  • Kootenai Tribe of Idaho v. Veneman, No. 01-35472.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • December 12, 2002
    ...Roadless Rule will have a demonstrable impact on the physical environment. See Metropolitan Edison Co. v. People Against Nuclear Energy, 460 U.S. 766, 772, 103 S.Ct. 1556, 75 L.Ed.2d 534 (1983). The Forest Service's Roadless initiative thus required an EIS under We next address whether the ......
  • Friends of Boundary Waters Wilderness v. Dombeck, Nos. 97-3282
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (8th Circuit)
    • January 7, 1999
    ...standing to assert their NEPA claims. The defendants assert that the language of Metropolitan Edison Co. v. People Against Nuclear Energy, 460 U.S. 766, 772, 103 S.Ct. 1556, 75 L.Ed.2d 534 (1983), supports their contention that the Outfitters lack standing under NEPA. In a discussion concer......
  • Preserve Poway v. City of Poway, D066635
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • March 9, 2016
    ...assess psychological impacts caused by a proposed project. For example, in Metropolitan Edison Co. v. People Against Nuclear Energy (1983) 460 U.S. 766, 103 S.Ct. 1556, 75 L.Ed.2d 534, the Supreme Court held that possible psychological harm to nearby residents resulting 245 Cal.App.4th 581f......
  • Sierra Club v. Norton, No. CIV.A. 02-258CBC.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Southern District of Alabama
    • June 19, 2002
    ...environment" has been defined as the physical or natural environment. See e.g. Metropolitan Edison Co. v. People Against Nuclear Energy, 460 U.S. 766, 103 S.Ct. 1556, 75 L.Ed.2d 534 (1983). However, where an action has a primary impact on the physical environment, it has been held that fact......
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11 books & journal articles
  • Arbitrary and Capricious: the Dark Canon of the United States Supreme Court in Environmental Law
    • United States
    • Georgetown Environmental Law Review Nbr. 33-1, October 2020
    • October 1, 2020
    ...at which point it had become a notorious Superfund site. Trubatch supra note 380 at 4. 384. Metro. Edison v. People Against Nuclear Power, 460 U.S. 766 (1983) (concerning the restart of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island that had experienced near-catastrophic failure, terrorizing inter ......
  • List of Case Citations
    • United States
    • Wetlands deskbook. 4th edition Appendices
    • April 11, 2015
    ...Metropolitan Edison Co. v. People Against Nuclear Energy, 460 U.S. 766, 13 ELR 20515 (1983) ................................................................................................115 Miccosukee Tribe v. South Florida Water Mgmt. District, 280 F.3d 1364 (11th Cir. 2002), rev’d , 124......
  • NEPA's Trajectory: Our Waning Environmental Charter From Nixon to Trump?
    • United States
    • Environmental Law Reporter Nbr. 50-5, May 2020
    • May 1, 2020
    ...v. Surface Transp. Bd., 267 F.3d 1144, 1151, 32 ELR 20304 (D.C. Cir. 2001). 45. Metropolitan Edison Co. v. People Against Nuclear Energy, 460 U.S. 766, 13 ELR 20515 (1983). 46. People Against Nuclear Energy v. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Comm’n, 678 F.2d 222, 224, 12 ELR 20546 (D.C. Cir. 1982).......
  • Federal Wetlands Law Permits Under §404
    • United States
    • Wetlands deskbook. 4th edition -
    • April 11, 2015
    ...Corps analysis of the socioeconomic impacts in this case. Id. at 571; see also Metropolitan Edison Co. v. People Against Nuclear Energy, 460 U.S. 766, 773–74, 13 ELR 20515 (1983) (NEPA requires a reasonably close causal relationship between a change in the physical environment and the efect......
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