Metropolitan Edison Co. v. PANE - 460 U.S. 766 (1983)

U.S. Supreme Court

Metropolitan Edison Co. v. PANE, 460 U.S. 766 (1983)

Metropolitan Edison v. People Against Nuclear Energy

No. 81-2399

Argued March 1, 1983

Decided April 19, 1983*

460 U.S. 766


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

Page 460 U. S. 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. 460 U. S. 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. 460 U. S. 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. 460 U. S. 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. 460 U. S. 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. 460 U. S. 779.

Page 460 U. S. 768

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