Act limiting nuclear liability heads for home strait

Joseph Palca
Nature Vol 322
March 31, 1988

Washington – The Price-Anderson Act, the law that defines industry liability in the event of a nuclear power plant accident, is lurching towards renewal in Congress. Attempts to revive it before it expired last summer failed, as did those shortly afterwards. But now the Senate has passed and will shortly send to the House of Representatives its version of the new legislation, and observers from industry, environmental groups and congressional staff agree that final passage appears inevitable.

The Price-Anderson Act was created in 1954 to protect a fledgling nuclear industry from devastating liability claims in the event of a nuclear accident. The law created a pool into which all nuclear power plant operators would make contributions in the event of an accident. Liability limits crept up over the years, so that by the time the act expired last August utilities were required to carry $160 million in insurance for each power plant they owned, and to be prepared to contribute $5 million to the coverage pool. That amounted to a total industry liability of around $700 million, far below even the most conservative damage estimates for any major accident.

The Senate version of Price-Anderson would raise the contribution to $63 million per reactor, amounting to an industry wide liability of more than $7,000 million, a tenfold increase. Environmental lobbies have seen this as a tremendous victory, and the industry – aware that liability limits had been unreasonably low in the past – was happy to stave off unlimited liability that some had been pushing for.

Price-Anderson also covers Department of Energy contractors whose work deals with fissionable materials. Without Price-Anderson, DoE contractors were threatening to refuse to sign contracts. But last year, the University of California agreed to continue to operate the DoE national laboratories at Livermore. Los Alamos and Berkeley under the terms of the War Powers Act, and a crisis was averted (see Nature 330, 103; 1987). The next major problem for DoE will be to find a contractor to run the weapons production reactor at Savannah River. DuPont has already told DoE it wants out, but now that Price-Anderson appears likely to gain approval, finding a replacement should be easier. Contractors are also covered up to about $7,000 million in the event of an accident, but the government picks up the tab.

Environmental groups had sought to make contractors liable for damages if negligence contributed to an accident. But Price-Anderson will in essence retain its ‘no-fault’ approach, although the Senate agreed to permit DoE to assess penalties against contractors found negligent, in much the same way that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may fine nuclear power plant operators.

An odd sticking-point may hold up final passage of the bill. In the Senate, an amendment was added that would extend Price-Anderson coverage to manufacturers of radiopharmaceuticals. That industry has had problems obtaining insurance, and some saw Price-Anderson as a convenient vehicle for providing that coverage. But the leadership in the House of Representatives does not agree, and a battle may be fought in conference between the two houses over this seemingly irrelevant point.

 

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