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Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. Energy Resources Commission

"swords Into Plowshares"

In the years that followed World War II, the federal government redirected the uses of nuclear energy which had powered the bombs dropped over Japan at the end of the war. Justice White of the Supreme Court, using a phrase drawn from the Bible, referred to "[t]he turning of swords into plowshares"--that is, "the transformation of atomic power into a source of energy in American society." To this end, Congress in 1946 authorized the civilian application of atomic power, and in that year it passed the Atomic Energy Act, which created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). For the next eight years, the federal government maintained full control over the use of nuclear technology. Then came the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which, as Justice White later noted, "grew out of Congress' determination that the national interest would be best served if the Government encouraged the private sector to become involved in the development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes."

Nuclear energy, of course, has not been without its attendant controversies over the potential dangers involved, including questions over disposal of nuclear waste--a key issue in Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. Energy Resources Commission. A nuclear reactor must periodically have its fuel rods replaced, meaning that the radioactive waste fuel must be removed to a place where it will not be able to seep into the water table or otherwise contaminate natural resources and endanger human lives. Because nuclear power plant operators originally assumed that the fuel would be reprocessed, storage pools made to hold it were relatively limited in capacity and design. Over time, however, it became clear that, for whatever reason, the fuel would not be reprocessed. This resulted in large stores of radioactive waste--8,000 metric tons of it, according to the Court's record in 1983, a number expected to grow by a factor of nine in the years leading up to 2000. Over time, a variety of schemes had evolved for disposing of these wastes, including proposals to place it beneath permanently frozen ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, or even to shoot it into space via rockets. The most likely of these proposals involved placing it in subsurface salt deposits.

Thus it was evident, as Justice White noted, that "problems of how and where to store nuclear wastes [have] engendered considerable scientific, political, and public debate." The disposal of nuclear wastes involved not only safety considerations but also economic concerns. The lack of any viable option for long-term disposal would render nuclear energy an unpredictable resource, and therefore an economically inefficient form of energy as well. The dual safety and economic concerns springing from the issue of nuclear-waste disposal set the stage for the issues debated in Pacific Gas.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Pacific Gas Electric Co. v. Energy Resources Commission - "swords Into Plowshares", Pacific Gas Takes On The Energy Commission, An Economic Issue, Not A Safety Issue