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Price-Anderson law should be repealed

At the turn of the “too-cheap-to-meter” atomic energy era, the nuclear industry knew that accidents would have immense costs, possibly bankrupting utilities that took this path.
Insurance through the marketplace could not be had, the risks of nuclear reactors known to be too high.
The Congress therefore made the taxpayer responsible for most financial risks. In the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 it indemnified nuclear plant operators, beyond a limited private-insurance liability amount.
As Mark Cooper writes in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the intent of this law was to help the “infant industry” get on its feet.
Within 10 years, Congress reckoned, it would solve the problems of reactor safety which were hampering private liability coverage.
Price-Anderson has been continually extended, however, those problems not having been resolved, although the “infant” is now 60 years old, the author notes.
Several studies by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have documented the enormity of possible consequences of reactor-meltdown accidents.
In 1982, for a worst-case accident at a plant near a densely populated area, it estimated 50,000 early fatalities, 167,000 injury cases and 14,000 peak cancer deaths along with “scaled costs” for property damage of $314 billion.
Despite these high costs, the law caps the entire industry’s total liability at $11.6 billion, any costs beyond this amount falling to the government (taxpayers).
Bloomberg News has reported the Japanese government’s current bailout of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, whose Fukushima reactors melted down after an earthquake and tsumami in March last year, to be $137 billion.
Cooper cites even higher estimates of eventual cost from that disaster, $250 billion and likely to increase beyond that.
He notes the cost thus far of Chernobyl (which Fukushima has been rated as equal to in severity) exceeding $600 billion when inflation is taken into account.
When governments socialize risk, shifting it from the private sector to the public, they create moral hazard, Cooper argues.
Relieved of full liability for accidents, a private entity may risk safety shortcuts or other irresponsible actions that put people and the environment in harms way.
Any accident burdens exceeding the limited private insurance the public must bear. Either the government must expend public funds to bail out the entity, or innocent victims’ harms will not be compensated and must be borne by them.
For a long established industry like the nuclear-power sector, the author concludes, it is time that the liability evasion be ended and the Price-Anderson law reformed or repealed.
With high government deficits a concern of congressional leaders, with the Fukushima reminder before us of how real and great the risks from nuclear power are, the call to finally end this subsidy is entirely justified.
Indeed, as revealed in two surveys by the Civil Society Institute over the past year, nearly four out of five Americans state they would favor Congress reviewing the 1957 law indemnifying nuclear power companies from most disaster costs.
The companies themselves, citizens hold, should be liable for all damages.
One hopes Congress will heed their message.