How Utilities Evade Nuclear Disaster Responsibility

Ever hear of the Price-Anderson Act? For the past 30 years, this act has been the atomic power industry’s price for building 100 nuclear plants throughout the United States.

Congress and three presidents gave into the nuclear power lobby and renewed this act every 10 years to give sharply limited liabili­ty to your electric com­pany in case of a radio­active disaster. Price-Anderson reduces your protection by reducing the financial responsibility of atomic power plant utilities and therefore their incentives to be super-careful. If electric companies are not fully liable for their risks, they are not likely to be fully careful in preventing these risks. Remember the Three Mile Island near-catastrophe in 1979.
If a nuclear plant near Boston, Chicago, New York or elsewhere has a meltdown or suffers an earthquake or sabotage releasing huge amounts of cancerous radioactivity over thousands of square miles of territory, hundreds of thousands of Americans could die over a period of years and property damage, contaminated soil and uninhabita­bility could cost tens of billions of dollars.

But, hark! Under Price-Anderson, the electric utility has its liability to compen­sate innocent victims limited to $700 mil­lion. The manufacturers of nuclear plant components, whose unsafe designs could have recklessly or knowingly caused the ca­lamity, do not have any liability at all. Un­der this law, they are totally immune to the public. General Electric, one such manufac­turer, is lobbying to keep their immunity to­tal, even should there be criminal negli­gence.

Three Ohio utilities are suing GeneralElectric, charging that the big company knowingly sold them a flawed design. They want $1 billion in damages. A radioactive public could collect nothing from G. E.

Surprised? Shocked? That is not all. Un­ der the Act, attorneys for the nuclear indus­try are the only ones guaranteed payment when damage claims from an accident ex­ceed the liability limit. Whatever the amount of legal expenses the companies run up, their lawyers (but not the victims’ lawyers) get paid first and fully ahead of the victims’ claims under such circumstances.

This year the Price-Anderson Act is up for renewal by Congress. But Congressman Morris Udall’s bill, currently being debated on the House floor, still exempts commer­cial nuclear contractors, who produce and supply the utilities, from any public liabili­ty. It still has the industry’s lawyers getting priority payment. It still exempts the De­partment of Energy’s corporate contractors from any liability for damage to the public, even for intentional safety violations.

Last Thursday the House of Representa­ tives passed an amendment to Udall’s bill so as to increase the protection of the tax­payer and the public by increasing the lia­bility of the plant operators from $700 mil­lion to $7 billion. These lawmakers do not believe that the taxpayer should pay for any disasters caused by the likes of Com­monwealth Edison or General Electric.

There are broad policy objectives for any law dealing with the accountability of the atomic power industry. One is to assure full compensation of any victims by the compa­nies who caused the harm. Another is to pro­tect taxpayers from subsidizing nuclear in­dustry recklessness or worse. A third objective is to increase safety incentives by placing the nuclear companies under full in­surance discipline and full accountability. Even Reagan’s departments of Defense and Justice have told Congress on other occasions that taxpayer indemnification companies do­ing business with the government reduces the incentives for safety that arise from tort law liability.

When even the two newspapers from Spokane, Washington, located deep in nuclear weapons and atomic power country, can editorialize for holding accountable defense contractors running government nuclear weapons facilities, it is time for Congress and Ronald Reagan to support a law that makes this pampered, subsidized, danger­ous industry just as accountable under the common law as all other industries are at present.

Otherwise, those industries — from the DuPonts and Exxons to the General Motors — will be asking for the same limited lia­bility or immunity from their victims.

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