2 minute read

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. Energy Resources Commission

An Economic Issue, Not A Safety Issue

The Court affirmed the court of appeals' ruling in a unanimous decision. Justice White, writing for the Court, first addressed the question of whether the statutes were ripe for judicial review. Section 25524.1(b), he held, was not ripe for review. With regard to that statute, White wrote that "a court should not stretch to reach an early, and perhaps a premature, decision regarding [it]." Section 25524.2 was ripe, for if power plants went ahead with their operations without knowing whether the moratorium imposed by the statute was valid, this "would impose a palpable and considerable hardship on the utilities, and may ultimately work harm on the citizens of California."

Given, then, that 25524.2 was ripe for review, White next turned to the question of preemption and found that the statute was not preempted by the Atomic Energy Act. From the time the federal act was passed in 1954 until the present, White explained, Congress had maintained a system of dual regulation over nuclear plants: the federal government held control over safety issues, whereas the states exercised "their traditional authority over economic questions such as the need for additional generating capacity, the type of generating facilities to be licensed, land use, and ratemaking." The Court held that 25524.2 was directed toward economics, rather than safety, in its purpose and thus was fully within California's authority.

In no way, the Court further held, did 25524.2 conflict with national policy, even with a decision by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to allow continued licensing of reactors despite concerns regarding waste disposal. Again, the NRC's authority, as that of a federal nuclear regulatory agency, was in the realm of safety, leaving states to make economic determinations regarding nuclear power. "And as there is no attempt on California's part," White wrote,

to enter the field of developing and licensing nuclear waste disposal technology, a field occupied by the Federal Government, 25524.2 is not preempted any more by the NRC's obligations in the waste disposal field than by its licensing power over the plants themselves.

Furthermore, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, enacted into law by Congress in 1982, did not appear to have been passed with the intention of superseding states' decision-making power with regard to waste disposal and the opening of new plants.

Finally, section 25524.2 did not in any way operate at cross-purposes to the aim embodied in the Atomic Energy Act of developing commercial uses for nuclear power. As the court of appeals had observed, Justice White wrote, "Promotion of nuclear power is not to be accomplished `at all costs.'" Instead, Congress had given the states authority to decide whether to build a nuclear plant or one using traditional fuel sources. "California's decision to exercise that authority," White held, "does not, in itself, constitute a basis for preemption."

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