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 well-being 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.
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 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 well-being of the neighboring communities.
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
Section 102(C) of NEPA, 83 Stat. 853, 42 U. S. C. § 4332(C), directs all federal agencies to
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 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:
Thus, although NEPA states its goals in sweeping terms of human health and welfare,
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
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. 2, supra, 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).
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.
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
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.S. 519, 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 decision," id., at 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. 17, 25 (1958), "[w]e cannot attribute to Congress the intention to . . . open the door to such obvious incongruities and undesirable possibilities."
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, 524 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
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. 2, supra. 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.
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
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. Ibid. 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.
Second, the Court of Appeals noted that PANE's claim was made "in the wake of a unique and traumatic nuclear accident." Ibid. 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"
For these reasons, we hold that the NRC need not consider PANE's contentions.
It is so ordered.
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 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 Service, 516 F.2d 378, 388 (CA2 1975), but out of a perception of risk. Ante, at 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.
"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 well being 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 well being 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."
"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."
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.