The nuclear shield

Acts of gross negligence by suppliers of nuclear goods and services – the kind of mistakes that might cause nuclear reactors to explode – will no longer be protected from liability under a proposed law that passed first reading in the House of Commons last month.

If the Nuclear Liability and Compensation Act passes, companies knowingly supplying faulty nuclear goods or services that cause a nuclear accident will no longer be exempt from liability for injuries or loss of property suffered by neighbours of nuclear power stations. Under the existing law, suppliers such as General Electric, SNC-Lavalin and Westinghouse are immune from prosecution, even if they supply faulty equipment recklessly or with intent to injure.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s new law will also provide more time for victims of radiation poisoning to claim compensation. Under existing law, any cancers that turn up more than 10 years after an accident cannot be compensated; the new version would give victims 30 years. However, research on survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows radiation-induced cancers even 60 years after their exposure.

Mr. Harper’s generosity with nuclear accident victims knows other bounds, too. When the original Nuclear Liability Act was passed in 1970, damage compensation was limited to $75-million – about $415-million in today’s currency. The new liability limit is $650-million. But in the 1970s, Canada’s nuclear neighbourhoods had many fewer inhabitants. For example, Pickering, which now hosts six working reactors and two retired ones, had a population of 24,800 when its municipal boundaries were set in 1974. It was 94,700 last year. Each Pickering resident’s liability coverage has shrunk to about 40 per cent of what it was in 1974 – if their community was contaminated by an accident, the new liability limit would be exhausted after paying out 10 cents per dollar of dwelling value, leaving no coverage for household contents, commercial property, disruption, lost income, injuries or death.

Nor would nuclear neighbours get any help from their own insurance, since all homeowner’s and renter’s policies contain a nuclear exclusion clause. There is no disagreement among professional risk experts on this one issue – the insurance and nuclear industries agree that the risk of a reactor accident is just too scary to bear without special protection.

The new law, like the old, gives the federal government the right to provide additional compensation to victims if it sees fit. Unlike the old law, the new law would require the government to consider updating the liability ceiling for nuclear operators every five years.

All nuclear countries provide similar liability shields for their nuclear industries by curtailing property rights. In fact, lobbying for this protection from the consequences of accidents was one of the global nuclear industry’s original reasons for developing national and international lobby groups, such as the Canadian Nuclear Association.

Liability protection for any potentially catastrophic activity or industry is a terrible idea that encourages risk-taking and irresponsibility. When society faces a large number of small accidents (automobile collisions, for instance), an argument can be made that no-fault schemes save enough in legal costs and court time to justify limits on individual responsibility. But nuclear catastrophes are rare, and increasing the pain of causing one must surely be more important than keeping the determination of fault out of the courts. Getting prompt interim relief to victims of nuclear catastrophes, before the courts determine fault, is a worthwhile government mandate, but there’s no reason to link it to the issue of legal responsibility.

Instead of updating the nuclear industry’s special legal shield from the consequences of its actions, Mr. Harper’s government should eliminate all the liability-limiting aspects of the law, intervening only to provide prompt interim relief to victims, and to ensure that all the companies in the industry or their insurers have deep enough pockets – enough to lose – so they can provide adequate compensation and face a disincentive to irresponsible behaviour. If Canadians must live in front of nuclear reactors, then nuclear vendors and operators must be required to stand behind them.

Tom Adams is executive director of Energy Probe.


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