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Monday, April 21, 2008

Green Nukes?

Nuking Your Insurance

Of late, the nuclear power industry has been ginning up a campaign to represent itself as a “green alternative” to hydrocarbon-based methods of electricity generation. Never mind, for the moment, the abysmal failure of the industry’s original claim, that nuclear power would produce electricity that was “too cheap to meter.” Never mind, as well, the fact that, decades on, we still have no permanent nuclear waste storage facility. Let’s look at the safety issue. And let’s look at it not from the point of view of “alarmist environmentalists” or the “poorly informed” public, but from the point of view of the industry itself, and from the point of view of those dispassionate number crunchers in the insurance industry.

We are repeatedly and strenuously assured that modern nuclear power plant design is completely safe, that we have nothing to fear from nuclear accidents.

This would be easier to accept if the industry actually believed its own rhetoric; it does not.

Exhibit A in this regard is the Price-Anderson Act first passed more than fifty years ago, in 1957.

In the fine print at the back of just about any insurance policy you hold–homeowner’s, renter’s, auto, even your contact lens insurance–there is a clause which exempts both your insurer and nuclear power plant operators from liability if your property is damaged as a result of a nuclear accident, whether at a nuclear power plant, fuel reprocessing facility or via the transportation or storage of nuclear waste. Damage resulting from nuclear war (declared or undeclared) is likewise exempt.

That’s the result of the Price-Anderson Act. The nuclear power industry, from its infancy, has never been willing to shoulder the financial risks of the accident or accidents that are “never going to happen.”

Don’t worry, though, you’re still covered: the federal government picks up the tab in the event of nuclear misadventures. And since the government gets its money from you. . . That means that you’ll just pay yourself. Simple.

The arithmetic of the Price-Anderson Act is simple, as well:

It provides an annual subsidy to the nuclear industry worth more than $3 billion—which is more than four times the annual federal expenditure on alternative energy projects and research.

It caps the total insurance coverage of the industry at just over $9 billion, while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s worst case estimate for the cost of a serious nuclear accident exceeds $300 billion.

Nothing new here. Just another industry privatizing the profits and socializing the costs, telling the public we have nothing to worry about, telling the government that the risks of their business are too great for the industry to bear.

If reactor operators really have the strength of their convictions behind them, let them lobby for the repeal of the Price-Anderson Act. Let them put up their own money in guarantee, not ours.