The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's exclusive authority to set safety standards does not foreclose the use of state tort remedies
Insofar as damages for radiation injuries are concerned, pre-emption should not be judged on the basis that the federal government has so completely occupied the field of safety that state remedies are foreclosed but on whether there is an irreconcilable conflict between the federal and state standards or whether the imposition of a state standard in a damages action would frustrate the objectives of the federal law
A decedent, before her death in an auto accident, suffered radiation injury resulting from her work at a nuclear power plant. The decedent's father, as administrator of her estate, was awarded $ 10 million in punitive damages by the jury in a state tort action for the nuclear power plant's negligence in allowing plutonium to escape from the plant. The nuclear power plant argued that punitive damages were preempted by federal law but the Court disagreed, finding that Congress did not intend to preempt state law tort remedies except where specifically indicated. The Court, in its review of the legislative history of federal nuclear safety regulation, found that Congress assumed that state law tort remedies would remain available. The Court held that punitive damages were not preempted by the Atomic Energy Act, by 42 U.S.C.S. § 2282, or by 42 U.S.C.S. § 2013(d).
Does federal pre-emption of state regulation of the safety aspects of nuclear energy extend to the state-authorized award of punitive damages for conduct related to radiation hazards?
The award of punitive damages is not pre-empted by federal law. The federal pre-emption of state regulation of the safety aspects of nuclear energy does not extend to the state-authorized award of punitive damages for conduct related to radiation hazards. There is ample evidence that Congress had no intention, when it enacted and later amended the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, of forbidding the States to provide remedies for those suffering injuries from radiation in a nuclear plant.