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In re In re TMI

ELR Citation: 26 ELR 20006
Nos. No. 94-7599, 67 F.3d 1103/(3d Cir., 10/17/1995)

The court holds that the operators of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor violated their duty of care to the public by releasing, during a 1979 accident at the facility, radiation in levels exceeding federal standards for radioactivity allowed in liquid or airborne effluents released off premises. The court first holds that federal law determines the standard of care and preempts state tort law. Regulations at 10 C.F.R. §§20.105 and 20.106, which regulate off-site radiation exposures, constitute the federal standard of care. These regulations represent the considered judgment of the relevant regulatory bodies on the appropriate levels of radiation to which the general public may be exposed. The court rejects plaintiffs' assertion that §20.105 applies exclusively to nuclear plant employees. Section 20.105 provides permissible dose limits for individuals in unrestricted areas, and the respective definitions of restricted and unrestricted areas demonstrate that the regulations governing persons in unrestricted areas were intended to cover persons outside a nuclear plant's boundaries, i.e., the general public. The court also rejects plaintiffs' contention that the dose limits in 10 C.F.R. pt. 20 apply only during normal operating conditions. Neither the language nor history of the regulations suggests this interpretation. The court defers to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC's) interpretation and holds that the dose limits were intended as the maximum permitted under all conditions.

The court holds that 10 C.F.R. §50.34a(a), which requires radiation releases to be "as low as reasonably achievable" (ALARA), does not form the standard of care. Section 50.34a explicitly provides that the numerical guidelines satisfying ALARA are not to be construed as radiation protection standards. Also, the regulation incorporating the ALARA guidelines states that the radiation protection standards of 10 C.F.R. pt. 20 continue to protect public health. Moreover, adopting ALARA as part of the standard of care would put juries in charge of deciding the permissible levels of radiation exposure and, more generally, the adequacy of safety procedures at nuclear plants—issues that have been explicitly reserved to the federal government in general and the NRC in particular. The court notes that its holding protects the public and provides owners and operators of nuclear power plants with a definitive standard by which their conduct will be measured.

The court next rejects defendants' contention that to establish a breach of duty, plaintiffs must show that they were in areas exposed to radiation in excess of that allowed under §§20.105 and/or 20.106. The regulations do not suggest that a breach occurs only when persons are exposed to excessive radiation. Instead, the regulations provide that a breach occurs whenever excessive radiation is released, whether or not anyone is present in the area exposed. The court next holds that the duty of care is measured by whether defendants released radiation in excess of levels permitted by §§20.105 or 20.106, as determined at the boundary of the facility, not by whether each plaintiff was exposed to those excessive radiation levels. Because defendants conceded that they violated §20.106, they violated their duty of care, thus satisfying the first and second elements of a negligence action. Plaintiffs still must prove causation and damages before they can recover. The court rejects defendants' contention that if individual radiation exposures are not considered in determining breach of duty, defendants will be forced to stand trial on potentially thousands of meritless claims. As part of the causation inquiry, each plaintiff must demonstrate exposure to radiation released during the accident.

[A related decision is published at 26 ELR 20014.]

Counsel for Appellants
Alfred H. Wilcox
Pepper, Hamilton & Scheetz
3000 Two Logan Sq.
18th & Arch Sts., Philadelphia PA 19103
(215) 981-4000

Counsel for Appellees
Arnold Levin
Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman
320 Walnut St., Ste. 600, Philadelphia PA 19106
(215) 592-1500

Before Scirica, McKee, and Sarokin, JJ.