By John LaForge
On July 27, the U.S. Senate approved a 20-year extension of the Price-Anderson Act. The law provides that if there are disastrous consequences resulting from reactor accidents, the manufacturers, builders, and operators won’t be held liable. The Act was first adopted in 1957 because no private insurer would issue an insurance policy to cover potentially huge costs. Later the government even took on responsibility for the industry’s radioactive waste disposal or abandonment.
In Europe, the Organization of European Economic Cooperation and EUROATOM assumed public liability for reactor accidents there.
As Victor Gilinsky reports in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Price-Anderson was handed to industrial giants General Electric, Westinghouse, and others after they told Congress they would not build civil power reactors — machinery with which they had no experience — if they faced liability for catastrophic accidents.
The recent Senate action was done at night, without any pesky public hearings, and after being added to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act. The Act’s extension is likely to pass in the majority Republican House of Representatives.
To promote nuclear power, “the government gave the builders and vendors freedom from liability for offsite accidents,” Gilinsky wrote.
The act currently provides a mere $13 billion for post-accident public compensation, with the funds coming over time from a self-insurance scheme funded by reactor owners.
This is because not even the richest insurance agencies in the world will sell a reactor accident liability policy to operators: the risks are too astronomical. The estimated cost of the 2011 Fukushima accident — $300 billion dollars and counting — dwarfs the Price-Anderson “policy.”
Any compensation costs beyond the $13 billion “would land in the lap of Congress” Gilinsky notes, which is to say regular taxpayers — the same people who would be the health and environmental victims of a reactor disaster’s radiation dispersal.
— Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Aug. 22, 2023