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.
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:
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.
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).