The Supreme Court removed a constitutional threat to the atomic power industry yesterday by unanimously upholding a law that puts a ceiling of $560 million on liability for all deaths, injuries and property damage arising from a single nuclear accident.
The Price-Anderson Act "passes constitutional muster," Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote in the opinion for the court, "The record . . . fully supports the need for a statutory limit on liability to encourage private industry participation," he said.
Thus the limit "bears a rational relationship to Congress' concern for stimulating the involvement of private enterprise in the production of electric energy through the use of atomic power," Burger said.
The Atomic Industrial Forum, an industry group, termed the decision "a victory for common sense."
Forum president Carl Walske said that the public "will continue to be protected under the law against harm from any imaginable nuclear accident," while the issue of insurance, which critics have used in opposing nuclear electric power plants, will be laid to rest.
Nuclear critic Ralph Nader said the decision tells the public "that it is constitutional for an electric utility to hide behind a law that protects it from 95 percent or more of the damage inflicted on people after an atomic-power catastrofe. The question remains unanswered: If atomic power is as safe as the utilities claim, why do they insist on shielding their assets from the financial risk of nuclear-power calamity?"
Nader accused the court of "extending the limited liability of corporations to new heights."
The decision reverses an April 1977 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge James B. McMillan in a case that pitted environmental groups against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Duke Power Co.
The commission had licensed the company to build two huge nuclear power plants near Charlotte, N.C. One is McGuire Nuclear Station, a $1 billion facility nearing completion about 17 miles northwest of the city; the other, the Catawba Nuclear Station, is being built at Lake Wylie, S.C., about 15 miles southwest of Charlotte. About 1.5 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the plants.
Before ruling, McMillan toured McGuire. He said he was impressed with the company's precautions - but concerned by the possibility of a failure in an emergency reactor cooling system that could cause a meltdown and release about 1,000 times as much radioactive material "as the bomb which devastated Hiroshima."
In his opinion, McMillan said that the probability of an accident producing losses exceeding the $560 million covered by Price-Anderson "is not fanciful but real."
He held that Price-Anderson denies the constitutional guarantee of ude process of law because it removes "reasonable certainty that the victims will be justly compensated." It denies the additional constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws by making those who may be injured in a nuclear accident bear the cost of providing a benefit for the whole society in the form of nuclear power, he said.
In rejecting the due-process argument, Chief Justice Burger wrote that the legislative history of Price-Anderson shows that the $560 million "was conceived of as a starting point," said that Congress, in event of accident, "would likely enact extraordinary relief provisions." He rejected the equal-protection arguments on similar grounds.