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
The NRC need not consider PANE's contentions. Pp.
(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.
(b) NEPA does not require agencies to evaluate the effects of
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.
(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.
(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.
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,
460 U. S.
Page 460 U. S. 768
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
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. [Footnote 1
as it turned out, no dangerous radiation was released,
Page 460 U. S. 769
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
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
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.
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. [Footnote 2
Page 460 U. S. 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).
] 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. [Footnote 4
] Metropolitan intervened on the side of the
Page 460 U. S. 771
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 health but also effects on the wellbeing of the
communities surrounding Three Mile Island."
at 371-372, 678 F.2d at 235-236. We granted
certiorari. [Footnote 5
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
Page 460 U. S. 772
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
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
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 someone 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 designed
to promote human welfare by alerting governmental actors to the
effect of their proposed actions on the physical environment.
The statements of two principal sponsors of NEPA, explaining to
their colleagues the Conference Report on the bill that was
ultimately enacted, illustrate this point:
Page 460 U. S. 773
"What is involved [in NEPA] is a congressional declaration that
we do not intend, as a government or as a people, to initiate
actions which endanger the continued existence or the health of
mankind: that we will not intentionally initiate actions which
do irreparable dame to the air, land and water
life on earth."
115 Cong.Rec. 40416 (1969) (remarks of Sen. Jackson) (emphasis
"[W]e can now move forward to preserve and enhance our air,
aquatic, and terrestrial environments
. . . to carry out the
policies and goals set forth in the bill to provide each citizen of
this great country a healthful environment."
at 40924 (remarks of Rep. Dingell) (emphasis
supplied). Thus, although NEPA states its goals in sweeping terms
of human health and welfare, [Footnote 6
] these goals are ends
has chosen to pursue by means
of protecting the physical
To determine whether § 102 requires consideration of a
particular effect, we must look at the relationship between that
effect and the change in the physical environment caused by the
major federal action at issue. For example, if the Department of
Health and Human Services were to implement extremely stringent
requirements for hospitals and nursing homes receiving federal
funds, many perfectly adequate hospitals and homes might be forced
out of existence. The remaining facilities might be so limited or
so expensive that
Page 460 U. S. 774
many ill people would be unable to afford medical care and would
suffer severe health damage. Nonetheless, NEPA would not require
the Department to prepare an EIS evaluating that health damage,
because it would not be proximately related to a change in the
Some effects that are "caused by" a change in the physical
environment in the sense of "but for" causation, will nonetheless
not fall within § 102, because the causal chain is too attenuated.
For example, residents of the Harrisburg area have relatives in
other parts of the country. Renewed operation of TMI-1 may well
cause psychological health problems for these people. They may
suffer "anxiety, tension and fear, a sense of helplessness," and
accompanying physical disorders, n
because of the risk that their
relatives may be harmed in a nuclear accident. However, this harm
is simply too remote from the physical environment to justify
requiring the NRC to evaluate the psychological health damage to
these people that may be caused by renewed operation of TMI-1.
Our understanding of the congressional concerns that led to the
enactment of NEPA suggests that the terms "environmental effect"
and "environmental impact" in § 102 be read to include a
requirement of a reasonably close causal relationship between a
change in the physical environment and the effect at issue. This
requirement is like the familiar doctrine of proximate cause from
tort law. See generally
W. Prosser, Law of Torts, ch. 7
(4th ed.1971). [Footnote 7
issue before us, then, is how to give content to this requirement.
This is a question of first impression in this Court.
Page 460 U. S. 775
The federal action that affects the environment in this case is
permitting renewed operation of TMI-1. [Footnote 8
] The direct effects on the environment of this
action include release of low-level radiation, increased fog in the
Harrisburg area (caused by operation of the plant's cooling
towers), and the release of warm water into the Susquehanna River.
The NRC has considered each of these effects in its EIS, and again
in the EIA. See
App. 51-58. Another effect of renewed
operation is a risk of a nuclear accident. The NRC has also
considered this effect. [Footnote
] See id.
PANE argues that the psychological health damage it alleges
"will flow directly from the risk of [a nuclear] accident." Brief
for Respondents 23. But a risk of an accident is not an effect on
the physical environment. A risk is, by definition, unrealized in
the physical world. 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. [Footnote 10
] We believe that the
element of risk lengthens the causal chain beyond the reach of
Risk is a pervasive element of modern life; to say more would
belabor the obvious. Many of the risks we face are generated by
modern technology, which brings both the possibility of major
accidents and opportunities for tremendous achievements. Medical
experts apparently agree that risk
Page 460 U. S. 776
can generate stress in human beings, which in turn may rise to
the level of serious health damage. For this reason, among many
others, the question whether the gains from any technological
advance are worth its attendant risks may be an important public
policy issue. Nonetheless, it is quite different from the question
whether the same gains are worth a given level of alteration of our
physical environment or depletion of our natural resources. The
latter question, rather than the former, is the central concern of
Time and resources are simply too limited for us to believe that
Congress intended to extend NEPA as far as the Court of Appeals has
taken it. See Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. v. Natural
Resources Defense Council, Inc., 435 U.
, 435 U. S. 551
(1978). The scope of the agency's inquiries must remain manageable
if NEPA's goal of "insur[ing] a fully informed and well-considered
435 U. S. 558
, is to be accomplished.
If contentions of psychological health damage caused by risk
were cognizable under NEPA, agencies would, at the very least, be
obliged to expend considerable resources developing psychiatric
expertise that is not otherwise relevant to their congressionally
assigned functions. The available resources may be spread so thin
that agencies are unable adequately to pursue protection of the
physical environment and natural resources. As we said in another
context in United States v. Dow, 357 U. S.
, 357 U. S. 25
(1958), "[w]e cannot attribute to Congress the intention to . . .
open the door to such obvious incongruities and undesirable
This case bears strong resemblance to other cases in which
plaintiffs have sought to require agencies to evaluate the risk of
crime from the operation of a jail or other public facility in
their neighborhood. See, e.g., Como-Falcon Coalition, Inc. v.
Department of Labor,
609 F.2d 342 (CA8 1979) (Job Corps
Center); Nucleus of Chicago Homeowners Assn. v. Lynn,
F.2d 225 (CA7 1975) (low income housing); First National Bank
of Chicago v. Richardson,
484 F.2d 1369 (CA7 1973) (jail). The
plaintiffs in these cases could have alleged
Page 460 U. S. 777
that the risk of crime (or their dislike of the occupants of the
facility) would cause severe psychological health damage. [Footnote 11
] The operation of the
facility is an event in the physical environment, but the
psychological health damage to neighboring residents resulting from
unrealized risks of crime is too far removed from that event to be
covered by NEPA. The psychological health damage alleged by PANE is
no closer to an event in the environment or to environmental
The Court of Appeals thought that PANE's contentions are
qualitatively different from the harm at issue in the cases just
described. It thought PANE raised an issue of health damage, while
those cases presented questions of fear or policy disagreement. We
do not believe this line is so easily drawn. Anyone who fears or
dislikes a project may find himself suffering from "anxiety,
tension[,] fear, [and] a sense of helplessness." N
Neither the language nor
the history of NEPA suggests that it was intended to give citizens
a general opportunity to air their policy objections to proposed
federal actions. The political process, and not NEPA, provides the
appropriate forum in which to air policy disagreements. [Footnote 12
We do not mean to denigrate the fears of PANE's members, or to
suggest that the psychological health damage they fear could not,
in fact, occur. Nonetheless, it is difficult for us to see the
differences between someone who dislikes a
Page 460 U. S. 778
government decision so much that he suffers anxiety and stress,
someone who fears the effects of that decision so much that he
suffers similar anxiety and stress, and someone who suffers anxiety
and stress that "flow directly," Brief for Respondents 23, from the
risks associated with the same decision. It would be
extraordinarily difficult for agencies to differentiate between
"genuine" claims of psychological health damage and claims that are
grounded solely in disagreement with a democratically adopted
policy. Until Congress provides a more explicit statutory
instruction than NEPA now contains, we do not think agencies are
obliged to undertake the inquiry. See Maryland National Capital
Park & Planning Comm'n v. U.S. Postal Service,
U.S.App.D.C. 158, 166, 487 F.2d 1029, 1037 (1973).
The Court of Appeals' opinion seems at one point to acknowledge
the force of these arguments, 219 U.S.App.D.C. at 365, 678 F.2d at
229, but seeks to distinguish the situation suggested by the
related cases. First, the Court of Appeals thought the harm alleged
by PANE is far more severe than the harm alleged in other cases.
It thought the severity of the harm is relevant to
whether NEPA requires consideration of an effect. This cannot be
the case. NEPA addresses environmental effects of federal actions.
The gravity of harm does not change its character. [Footnote 13
] If a harm does not have a
sufficiently close connection to the physical environment, NEPA
does not apply.
Second, the Court of Appeals noted that PANE's claim was made
"in the wake of a unique and traumatic nuclear accident."
We do not understand how the accident at TMI-2
transforms PANE's contentions into "environmental effects." The
Court of Appeals "cannot believe that the psychological aftermath
of the March, 1979, accident falls outside"
Page 460 U. S. 779
at 366, 678 F.2d at 230. On the contrary,
NEPA is not directed at the effects of past accidents, and does not
create a remedial scheme for past federal actions. It was enacted
to require agencies to assess the future effects of future actions.
There is nothing in the language or the history of NEPA to suggest
that its scope should be expanded "in the wake of " any kind of
For these reasons, we hold that the NRC need not consider PANE's
contentions. [Footnote 14
NEPA does not require agencies to evaluate the effects of risk
risk. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is
reversed, and the case is remanded with instructions to dismiss the
petition for review.
It is so ordered.
* Together with No. 82-358, United States Nuclear Regulatory
Commission et al. v. People Against Nuclear Energy et al.,
also on certiorari to the same court.
Report of the President's Commission on
the Accident at Three Mile Island (1979).
Specifically, PANE contended, App. to Pet. for Cert.
"1.) Renewed operation of [TMI-1] would cause severe
psychological distress to PANE's members and other persons living
in the vicinity of the reactor. The accident at [TMI-2] has already
impaired the health and sense of wellbeing of these individuals, as
evidenced by their feelings of increased anxiety, tension and fear,
a sense of helplessness and such physical disorders as skin rashes,
aggravated ulcers, and skeletal and muscular problems. Such
manifestations of psychological distress have been seen in the
aftermath of other disasters. The possibility that [TMI-1] will
reopen severely aggravates these problems. As long as this
possibility exists, PANE's members and other persons living in the
communities around the plant will be unable to resolve and recover
from the trauma which they have suffered. Operation of [TMI-1]
would be a constant reminder of the terror which they felt during
the accident, and of the possibility that it will happen again. The
distress caused by this ever present spectre of disaster makes it
impossible . . . to operate TMI-1 without endangering the public
health and safety."
"2.) Renewed operation of TMI-1 would cause severe harm to the
stability, cohesiveness and wellbeing of the communities in the
vicinity of the reactor. Community institutions have already been
weakened as a result of a loss of citizen confidence in the ability
of these institutions to function properly and in a helpful manner
during a crisis. The potential for a reoccurrence of the accident
will further stress the community infrastructure, causing increased
loss of confidence and a breakdown of the social and political
order. Sociologists such as Kai Erikson have documented similar
phenomena in other communities following disasters."
"The perception, created by the accident, that the communities
near Three Mile Island are undesirable locations for business and
industry, or for the establishment of law or medical practice, or
homes, compounds the damage to the viability of the communities.
Community vitality depends upon the ability to attract and keep
persons, such as teachers, doctors, lawyers, and businesses
critical to economic and social health. The potential for another
accident, should TMI-1 be allowed to operate, would compound and
make permanent the damage, trapping the residents in disintegrating
and dying communities and discouraging . . . essential growth."
Four members of the Commission filed individual opinions. There
was no majority opinion.
While the petition for review was pending, the NRC staff
prepared an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to determine
whether a full EIS is required before TMI-1 could be permitted to
renew operation. The NRC's Licensing Board has ruled that the EIA
was adequate, and that no EIS is required. This ruling was upheld
by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Appeal Board. In re
Metropolitan Edison Co.,
Docket No. 50-289 (ALAB-705) (Dec.
10, 1982). Several additional steps, including repairs to a steam
generator and NRC approval of those repairs, are necessary before
Metropolitan actually resumes operation of TMI-1. Brief for
Petitioners in No. 82-358, p. 18, and n. 13.
In the Court of Appeals the NRC argued that there is no "major
Federal action" involved in permitting TMI-1 to renew operations,
because TMI-1 already has an operating license, and an EIS was
prepared before that license was issued. The Court of Appeals
rejected this contention, stating that the
"'major federal action' in the case of TMI-1 is . . . the
Commission's continued exercise of supervisory responsibility over
its operation and maintenance."
219 U.S.App.D.C. at 394, 678 F.2d at 231. No party has sought
review of this holding, and we intimate no view as to its
correctness. Similarly, no party has sought review of the Court of
Appeals' Atomic Energy Act holding.
For example, § 2 of NEPA, 83 Stat. 852, as set forth in 42
U.S.C. § 321, provides:
"The purposes of this chapter are: to declare a national policy
which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man
and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or
eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the
health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the
ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation;
and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality."
In drawing this analogy, we do not mean to suggest that any
cause-effect relation too attenuated to merit damages in a tort
suit would also be too attenuated to merit notice in an EIS; nor do
we mean to suggest the converse. In the context of both tort law
and NEPA, courts must look to the underlying policies or
legislative intent in order to draw a manageable line between those
causal changes that may make an actor responsible for an effect and
those that do not.
The NRC concluded that the risk of an accident had not changed
significantly since the EIS for TMI-1 was prepared in 1972.
We emphasize that, in this case, we are considering effects
caused by the risk of an accident. The situation where an agency is
asked to consider effects that will occur if a risk is realized,
for example, if an accident occurs at TMI-1, is an entirely
different case. The NRC considered, in the original EIS and in the
most recent EIA for TMI-1, the possible effects of a number of
accidents that might occur at TMI-1.
This risk can be perceived differently by different people.
Indeed, it appears that the members of PANE perceive a much greater
risk of another nuclear accident at Three Mile Island than is
perceived by the NRC and its staff
Although these cases involved similar facts, they presented
different legal issues. They did not consider allegations that risk
of crime would lead to psychological health damage. They did hold
that the risk of crime, or the plaintiffs' concern about crime, do
not constitute environmental effects. Of course, these holdings are
not at issue in this litigation.
PANE's original contention seems to be addressed as much to the
symbolic significance of continued operation of TMI-1 as to the
risk of an accident. See n
NEPA does not require consideration
of stress caused by the symbolic significance individuals attach to
federal actions. Psychological health damage caused by a symbol is
even farther removed from the physical environment, and more
closely connected with the broader political process, than
psychological health damage caused by risk.
For example, the hospital regulations contemplated in the
at 460 U. S.
-774, might cause many deaths. But despite the
severity of that harm, the deaths would not, by any stretch of the
imagination, be "environmental effects."
The Court of Appeals held that the NRC need not consider PANE's
contentions of community damage unless it found that the
contentions of psychological health damage warrant preparation of
an EIS. Since we decide that the NRC need not consider the
contentions of psychological health damage at all, it follows that
the contentions of community damage need not be considered.
JUSTICE BRENNAN, concurring.
I join the opinion of the Court. There can be no doubt that
psychological injuries are cognizable under NEPA. See ante
at 460 U. S. 771
As the Court points out, however, the particular psychological
injury alleged in these cases did not arise, for example, out of
the direct sensory impact of a change in the physical environment,
cf. Chelsea Neighborhood Assns. v. United States Postal
516 F.2d 378, 388 (CA2 1975), but out of a perception
of risk. Ante
at 460 U. S. 775
In light of the history and policies underlying NEPA, I agree with
the Court that this crucial distinction "lengthens the causal chain
beyond the reach" of the statute. Ibid.