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Nuclear Disaster: Who Foots the Bill?

Right now, taxpayers insure the nuclear power industry against the costs of disaster. How can we support safer industries, instead?
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Three Mile Island, photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy

Three Mile Island nuclear power station, site of a 1979 partial nuclear meltdown.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy

As the costs of dealing with contamination from the failing reactors of Fukushima continue to mount, we should re-examine not only our decision to build new nuclear power plants, but what to do about our own 104 aging reactors—and the spent radioactive fuel stored near them. Due to the liability protections that U.S. taxpayers currently provide, they represent not only a safety risk, but a financial one as well.

In 1957, before there was commercial nuclear power, Congress passed the Price-Anderson Act, which provided catastrophic risk insurance to the fledgling nuclear industry. Congress intended this taxpayer-backed insurance policy to be a temporary measure, a ten-year shelter that would give the industry the chance to mature enough to find private insurance companies to cover the cost of potential disaster.

Fast forward fifty years, and Price-Anderson is still in effect, having been renewed several times. Despite the industry's assurances that its reactors are safe, it continues to demand this unique liability protection. As a result, taxpayers cover all costs exceeding $12.6 billion associated with a catastrophic accident or attack on a nuclear power plant. As Vice-President Dick Cheney famously declared, without Price-Anderson "nobody's going to invest in nuclear power plants." That's because—as the crisis in Japan shows us—the costs and risks of operating nuclear power plants are so great that without the taxpayer financial guarantees, nuclear power corporations couldn't afford privately provided risk insurance.

Despite the nuclear industry's assurances that its reactors are safe, it continues to demand this unique liability protection. As a result, taxpayers cover all costs exceeding $12.6 billion associated with a catastrophic accident or attack on a nuclear power plant. 

Does this situation sound familiar? During last summer's horrific BP oil gusher, many Americans were outraged to learn that the financial responsibility for oil spills of companies such as BP is capped at $75 million under federal law. That amount didn't come close to covering the cost of clean-up and damages to victims. BP, with prodding from the federal government, established a $20 billion escrow fund, which many still believe to be inadequate. But we can't count on nuclear power companies doing the same, in part because major oil companies like BP have far deeper pockets than even the biggest U.S. nuclear utility; in 2010, BP had revenues of $309 billion compared to $18.6 billion for Exelon, America's largest operator of commercial nuclear reactors.

What can be done? In addition to requiring nuclear power companies to obtain their own catastrophic risk insurance, the Obama Administration should put a halt to all nuclear loan guarantees (Obama has proposed $36 billion in taxpayer-backed loan guarantees to build new nuclear reactors) and support an effort empowering state elected officials to determine the future of aging reactors in their states.

Japan's disaster is a reminder that we ought to be investing the public's money in wind, solar, and energy efficiency—methods for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels that don't feature the kind of deadly risks posed by nuclear. And given the inherent risks associated with our aging reactors, state lawmakers should be given legal authority to have a say in how long those old reactors should continue operating.

Nuclear power provides 20 percent of our electricity needs; we can't simply replace all reactors today with wind, solar, and more efficient use of energy. But we can stop subsidizing what we know to be a dangerous fuel source (and one that has not, even in half a century, matured past the need for government support) and instead invest our resources in clean, renewable energy as we once did in the fledgling nuclear energy industry.


Tyson Slocum

Tyson Slocum wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions for a just and sustainable world. Tyson is the director of Public Citizen's Energy Program.

Interested? 

  • What to Pack for Disaster—And What to Leave Behind: Rebecca Solnit: When disaster strikes, don't forget your compassion and critical thinking—but leave your panic, cliches, and stereotypes at the door. 
  • From Hiroshima to Fukushima: Rethinking Atomic Energy: The combined devastation of Japan's earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant explosion begs the question: Doesn't Mother Nature provide enough forces of destruction without humans adding one of our own?
  • 13 Best Energy Ideas: Investment in energy projects will total $16 trillion in the next two decades. Sarah van Gelder lays out over a dozen sustainable energy policies and technologies that can make our infrastructure more climate friendly.
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