A federal appeals court, in a decision with application to the entire nuclear industry, ruled yesterday that the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant may not be restarted without consideration of the psychological distress it could cause those living near it.
The unprecedented, 2-to-1 decision said that the "anxiety, tension and fear" involved in restarting Three Mile Island, particularly the fear of a "recurring catastrophe," must be taken into account by nuclear regulatory officials just as they assess the more obvious potential for physical damage to people and the environment.
Dissenting Judge Malcolm R. Wilkey predicted a "a court-imposed paralysis of nuclear power" if yesterday's decision is allowed to stand. Judge J. Skelly Wright, joined by Judge Carl McGowan, wrote the opinion.
Restarting the reactor left undamaged by the March, 1979, Three Mile Island disaster has been delayed indefinitely by leaks and corrosion in thousands of steam generator tubes.
Yesterday's ruling probably will cause further delays in the start-up there, and possibly future delays and protracted court fights involving start-ups of other new or shut-down plants in an industry already surrounded by regulatory and legal requirements.
The decision requires the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do an environmental impact study before restarting Three Mile Island and to include in that study both the psychological and socio-economic effects of the start-up, including the potential that fear could cause people, business and industry to leave the area, damaging the economy.
The language of the ruling was broad enough to raise the possibility of similar requirements for other nuclear projects as well for any large project with federal involvement.
NRC officials were still studying the ruling yesterday and would not speculate on whether they will appeal.
The National Environmental Policy Act requires preparation of environmental impact statements to assess the safety and health impact of major projects, such as power plants, dams, airports and highways.
In the context of the act, Wright said yesterday, "Health encompasses psychological health . . . . In the wake of the most publicized nuclear accident of our time, the people of the Three Mile Island area--and the people of the nation as a whole--are entitled to the protections Congress provided in the act .
"The government must not proceed to make decisions that might have a momentous effect on the psychological health and community well-being of its citizens without first giving careful, responsible consideration to the consequences its actions might have."
Yesterday's decision stemmed from a dispute between People Against Nuclear Energy, an organization of citizens who live near the nuclear plant, on the one hand and the NRC and the Metropolitan Edison Co., which owns the plant, on the other.
"If this court victory stands and the NRC really does consider psychological stress here, then I believe they'll never reopen the plant," said James B. Hurst, a member of the citizen organization's board.
Wilkey, in his dissent, said that the ruling took the environmental act "far beyond its intended purpose. The environmental effects of a federal activity are now to include the views of the population itself on the very desirability of the activity . . . . In my view this is a judgment for Congress, and one which has already been made in the case of nuclear power.
"To adopt the majority view would be to let any special interest group effectively repeal an act of Congress if it could whip up sufficient hysteria."
Residents of the three counties surrounding Three Mile Island are scheduled to vote in a referendum Tuesday on whether they approve of restarting the undamaged reactor.