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Tamminen: The Nuclear Fig Leaf is Falling

Raise your hand if US taxpayers are responsible to pay for the most expensive mistakes you make in your business. Chances are, the only hands that just went up are attached to nuclear power executives and, if that unfair advantage were removed we would see the end of nuclear power in this country.

Nuclear Power Plant
Nuclear Power Plant

The five decades old Price-Anderson Act sets a cap on liability by power plants and their insurers for damages arising from nuclear accidents. After $300 million in damages are paid by insurance, the US taxpayer takes over to address catastrophic liabilities, including cleanups, property damage, health care, and lives lost. Including some other payments made into accident funds, the utility industry is on the hook for no more than $10 billion for all accidents that could ever occur at all nuclear plants in the nation. Raise your hand if you think just one major accident would result in far more damage claims than that.

In England, the system works about the same, with each nuclear plant responsible for no more than £140 million and similar systems exist in Europe, Japan, and Canada.

But the Indian government is apparently smarter. Earlier this month, its parliament voted down a Price-Anderson style law and effectively ended the interest by US reactor builders in that marketplace. Why are Indian leaders smarter than American and European counterparts? Perhaps because of the 1984 Bhopal tragedy, where poisonous gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant killing more than 8,000 people and injuring more than 20,000. In that case, the Indian government fixed liabilities for the American company at $470 million, far below the actual damages to lives, livelihoods, and property values, outraging the Indian public and many of its leaders.

In truth, the US and EU nuclear industry has been covered by a number of fig leaves, but they’re falling away fast:

  • Uranium is plentiful. Actually, there may only be 80 years of supply remaining, much of it in Russia and Namibia. Should we move from energy dependence on Saudi Arabia and Iraq to dependence on those two less-than-enlightened governments?
  • Nuclear waste disposal is as easy as building a federal repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. That hasn’t worked so far (and may never be, considering we can’t even agree on how to dispose of low-level nuclear waste from taking x-rays) and Germany has spent 30 years trying to site its nuclear waste dump without success.
  • Nuclear power is clean. Exelon just announced it would close a reactor in NJ rather than clean up impacts from dumping super-heated water into local rivers, while a nuclear plant in Vermont continues a months-long search for radioactive leaks into an adjacent river. Even France, the nuclear power poster child, ordered extra inspections of all of its nukes last year after a series of spills and leaks that contaminated popular tourist beaches and other resources.
  • Nukes are “low carbon” energy. Not when considering the total life-cycle inputs of dirty energy needed to mine, refine, transport, store, and dispose of fuels or the high-carbon footprint of massive reactor construction and transmission projects.
  • Nuclear power is safe. Tell that to the estimated 4,000 to half a million people who will die early from the Chernobyl disaster. Admittedly that facility was an aberration, but it highlights the stakes if even one mistake is made—and the true potential cost to American taxpayers.
The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage
The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage

It’s time to follow the lead of India’s parliament and drop the last fig leaf covering the shortcomings of nuclear power. Repeal Price-Anderson and make nukes compete on merits like every other American business. If we do, I suspect the true cost and risks would far outweigh any benefits and our nation would quickly embrace the safer, more secure energy efficiency and renewable energy projects that can meet our need for power in the 21st Century and beyond.

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Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).