Going without insurance is described as "going naked" in insurance industry lingo. Going without insurance for the worst hazards in the nuclear power industry is business as usual.
One need not look back very far to see the problem. In March 2011, the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, triggered by an earthquake followed by a tsunami that overwhelmed all of Japan's safeguards, melted down three reactors, displaced 160,000 people and caused an estimated $250 billion in damages and other still-unfolding economic consequences.
Today, in the United States, we have 104 operating nuclear plants producing electricity. The owners, operators, and government regulators who oversee them say an event like Fukushima will not happen here. And even if it did, they insist, there is enough liability insurance in place to cover the damages. The actual amount of that insurance coverage: just $12.6 billion.
You don't need an advanced degree in calculus or risk analysis to see that something doesn't add up, and to start feeling a bit...naked. But when it comes to nuclear insurance, naked is the fashion designed for the American public.
A catastrophic accident in the US could cost way more than $12.6 billion. A worst-case scenario study in 1997 by the Brookhaven National Laboratory estimated that a major accident could cost $566 billion in damages and cause 143,000 possible deaths. Another such study, by Sandia National Laboratories in 1982, calculated the possible costs at $314 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that would put both estimates close to the trillion dollar range today. So $12.6 billion wouldn't cover much.
After Fukushima, which was only the second worst such accident behind the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in the former Soviet Union, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its staff scrambled to reappraise the adequacy of their own safety regimens for nuclear power plants. And they re-examined the sufficiency of the limited insurance available to indemnify the American people against property damage, loss of life and other economic consequences of nuclear accidents. Then the NRC hastened to publish the "lessons learned" from the Japanese catastrophe to show they were on top of things. Though the previously existing US system had been described as virtually fail-safe, federal regulators found that improvements were possible after all and ordered that they be made.
But one not so small thing remained unchanged, post-Fukushima: the tightly capped insurance system. Of course, raising the amount of insurance required to operate nuclear plants would be expensive. The nuclear industry, which provides 20 percent of all of the country's electrical power, is not eager to incur additional expenses like higher insurance premiums for more coverage. Oh, but the nuclear power industry doesn't actually pay premiums on most of the insurance coverage that supposedly is available (more about that later.)
First, a little history. After solving the scientific and technological issues of splitting the atom, the biggest problem the nuclear industry faced in its infancy was obtaining accident insurance coverage. Without insurance, investors were unwilling to provide start-up capital. But the insurance industry was nervous. After all, this was back in the 1950s, and who knew then how safe -- or dangerous -- this new power source might turn out to be? So insurers were refusing to assume unlimited levels of liability.
But President Dwight D. Eisenhower was determined to develop "Atoms for Peace," and he worked with a cooperative Congress to remove all roadblocks. Their solution to the insurance obstacle was a new federal law, the Price-Anderson Act of 1957, which simply imposed federally-decreed limits on liability from accidents at non-military nuclear facilities. The law, amended several times since then, allowed the creation of insurance pools to cover accidents. Today the plan has two tiers. The first tier is a $375 million insurance policy for which each nuclear plant must pay premiums ranging between $500,000 and $2 million a year, depending on plant size and other factors. If a plant has an accident and $375 million is not sufficient to cover resulting damages the second tier kicks in and all the other plant operators around the country must chip in up to $111 million each to indemnify victims until the $12.6 billion cap is reached.
By the way, if you live near a nuclear plant, or even many miles away, you cannot buy your own private insurance policy to protect your home against nuclear accidents, thanks to the Price-Anderson law.
The nuclear industry and the insurance industry both understood the hard realities of the risk. In testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on May 24, 2001, John L. Quattrocchi, then senior vice president for underwriting at the American Nuclear Insurers pool, put it bluntly: "The simple fact is there is always a limit on liability -- that limit equal to the assets of the company at fault."
Meanwhile, corporations that own nuclear plants have devised spin-off schemes, erecting legal firewalls to protect the parent company if their limited-liability subsidiary actually operating the plant goes under as the result of an accident.
Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear power plant suffered a partial meltdown in March, 1979. Victor Gilinsky was the senior sitting member on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission when that accident happened. According to Gilinsky, now retired, "There is no insurance for an extreme event."
Now, as scientists warn of climate change, rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes and a host of other environmental threats related to global warming it might not be unreasonable to re-examine protections afforded the public. Small-scale accidents at nuclear plants continue to happen. A big one, like Fukushima or worse, may have a low probability level. But it isn't impossible.
True, nuclear plants contribute little or no greenhouse gas emissions to the overburdened atmosphere compared to the coal-fired plants that add so much to global warming. But there is another factor to consider when weighing the nuclear option. Originally licensed for 40 years of operational life, most US nuclear plants are approaching or have already exceeded that period. So far, 73 such plants have been given 20-year extensions, and with retrofitting and extensive upgrades, some are expected to function to an age of 80 years. Lets all keep our fingers crossed.
Miles Benson is a correspondent for Link TV's Earth Focus. He has a distinguished career as a daily print journalist. From 1969 till his retirement in 2005, was a correspondent for the Newhouse Newspaper group, which included 30 daily newspapers. He covered the US Congress for 15 years and then the White House for 16 years, wrote a weekly political column and covered national politics and public policy.
In the latest Global Pulse Episode, host Erin Coker looks at media coverage of the Haiti earthquake. Watch the episode and share your thoughts below!
Does the excessive coverage of Haiti’s earthquake – not to mention the questionable journalistic and medical ethics involved when doctor/reporters can’t decide whether to operate or do interviews — give the viewer a better understanding of the disaster? Or is it little more than the casting of journalists as action heroes?
The New Republic’s Chief Editor, Noam Scheiber, in his recent article taking the news establishment to task, wrote that “in Haiti the dozens of redundant dispatches are stressing an already perilously fragile situation.”
In a follow-up interview with Global Pulse featured in this week’s episode, Scheiber says, “More information is great. But if an airport is being taxed with a volume way above its normal capacity and as a result aid workers, doctors and nurses can’t get in, then I think we have gotten to the point where one good—information—is trumping another good—relief workers…to the detriment of the people we are trying to help.”
The solution, Scheiber thinks, is a so-called “disaster pool.” Comprising a limited number of reporters in country, the disaster pool would share information with news outlets in a similar manner that White House correspondents share “pool reports” with the dozens of journalists unable to attend a briefing. You can download an MP3 of the complete Scheiber interview here.
This might preclude scenes like those we used in this episode, of Anderson Cooper and Katie Couric aiding wounded children, but it may give networks more time for in-depth stories that discuss Haiti’s tumultuous history, the roots of its abject poverty and what day-to-day life was like for the average Haitian pre-earthquake.
Journalist Marc Cooper, characterizing the coverage as “myopic” and “disaster porn”, on his blog, wrote, “It's a totally legit news story for CNN or anyone else [to] zoom in on this or that dramatic and heart-rending rescue of one or another victim trapped in rubble. But every one of those stories is also a stark and rather sickening reminder of how the daily pre-earthquake deaths, starvation and deprivation were considered SO non-newsworthy.”
This reminds me of my own trip to Haiti in the fall of 2008, as part of a disaster response team after a series of hurricanes killed hundreds of people and badly damaged the city of Gonaïves. While the storms made headlines, the fallout apparently wasn’t on a large enough scale to warrant widespread news coverage.
Looking back, what I remember most is the darkness. There is little electricity in Haiti, and the nighttime’s dim storefronts and weak candlelight gave the impression of a city that was a relic of another age.
Will Port-au-Prince once again become a forgotten city? As this article from the Columbia Journalism Review reminds me, there was once, and is likely to be again, only one full-time American journalist in Haiti.
In this week's special behind-the-scenes episode, Inside Global Pulse, host Erin Coker gives viewers an inside glimpse of what goes into the making of a Global Pulse Episode, particularly the role of international news outlets. Watch this episode below!
Since the conclusion of the Cold War, and particularly in the last decade, U.S. coverage of international news has significantly declined. While U.S. news outlets briefly ramped up overseas coverage immediately following 9/11, in recent years international stories have once again dropped off in favor of nationally focused pieces. In 2008, foreign news coverage was at a record low.
Strained budgets and sinking ad revenues have further altered the global media landscape, forcing the closure of U.S. foreign bureaus from Paris to Bangkok, with foreign correspondents in the traditional sense becoming increasingly obsolete.
Ironically, news outlets broadcasting in English have exploded in the last decade. Such newly emerging global news channels include Russia Today, China’s CCTV, Al Jazeera English, France 24, and Press TV from Iran, to name a few.
Why the news invasion? Some experts point to a desire to offer a unique country-specific perspective on a world media stage dominated by CNN and the BBC. A jab, perhaps, at "Anglo-Saxon imperialism." Others see the phenomenon as propaganda by non-democratic governments like China, attempting to skew the facts. Al Jazeera English is still reviled by many Americans as promoting anti-western bias at best, and as a mouthpiece for dangerous extremists at worst.
Regardless of one's position on these international outlets, the majority of Americans are unable (or unlikely) to tune in. In a Foreign Policy editorial, Cyril Blet, author of Une Voix Mondiale Pour un État, (A World Voice for a State), a book profiling the state of world news, notes that unlike in Europe and elsewhere, international channels in the U.S. are available only via special cable or satellite packages, if at all. The lack of easy access to international news channels, he says, puts Americans at a disadvantage.
"When American viewers can't access international news, their ability to take part in global conversations suffers greatly," argues Blet. "The average U.S. television-watcher doesn't ever see the diverse interpretations of any single event that filter in to most TVs across the world."
With the Internet making international programming more accessible than ever, this may change in the coming years. But perhaps less important than specific broadcast platforms in international news distribution, is the belief in the value of these global conversations.
The debate over health care reform in the United States has now turned into more of a battle, replete with guns and anger. The divisive rancor that had seemingly disappeared following Obama's election amid calls for national unity has resurfaced at contentious town halls on the health care issue, fueled in part, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, by "conflict-driven cable news." Linguistics professor and author George Lakoff, featured previously on Link in the special "There You Go Again: Orwell Comes to America," takes the Democrats to task in this video for failing to sell a national health care plan to the American public. (Video courtesy of our partners at FORA.tv!) Instead, according to Lakoff, conservatives are successfully framing the debate with phrases like "death panels" and "government takeover," while Democrats refuse to risk touting the real and tragic failures of insurance company-based health care in the United States. (For an interesting look at the ill effects of the American health care system on ordinary folk, check out Andrew Sullivan's blog series at the Atlantic Monthly, "The Views From Your Sickbeds," and another article in the September 2009 edition of the Atlantic, "How American Health Care Killed My Father" by David Goldhill.)
Yesterday, Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! also looked at the health care debate, interviewing Chad Terhune, a senior writer at BusinessWeek covering health care issues. Terhune's article, "The Health Insurers Have Already Won," looks at the real potential winners in health reform -- the health insurance industry. He writes, "The carriers have succeeded in redefining the terms of the reform debate to such a degree that no matter what specifics emerge in the voluminous bill Congress may send to President Obama this fall, the insurance industry will emerge more profitable." (Watch the complete interview below, and read more at DemocracyNow.org.) And what do you think -- is a better health care system on the horizon for the U.S.? Or will insurance companies be the only winners in this battle?
Link's latest episode of Latin Pulse/Pulso Latino travels to Toribio, Colombia, symbol of the indigenous resistance movement following a devastating attack by FARC guerillas in 2005. With their land under attack, occupied by guerillas, paramilitaries, and police, the Naza Indians native to this region in Southern Colombia are struggling to pick up the pieces. The dangers for civilians remain high in Colombia's Cauca region, as FARC guerillas, drug traffickers and police continue to do battle, including this recent attack in Buenos Aires, Cauca, Colombia.
This video footage comes from Colombian TV program Contravia, led by investigative journalist Hollman Morris, who was featured in this previous Latin Pulse interview. The Foundation for a New Iberian-American Journalism, an organization founded by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, awarded this episode of Contravia its highest prize in 2007 for journalistic excellence.
Written by John Hamilton
These are dangerous times to be a journalist. According to Reporters Without Borders, 60 journalists were killed in the line of duty last year. 673 others were arrested, more than 900 were assaulted and 29 journalists were kidnapped. Unfortunately, this year isn’t shaping up to be any better.
In the past few weeks, Link TV has highlighted several incidents in which reporters have faced censorship, imprisonment, and even death—all for doing their jobs.
Link TV’s original series Latin Pulse presented the special program, Stories that Kill, looking at the dangers faced by investigative journalists caught in the crossfire of a long-simmering civil war between leftist guerillas and government forces.
The award-winning Democracy Now! covered the case of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two American reporters sentenced by North Korean authorities to twelve years of hard labor after inadvertently crossing into the country from China.
Mosaic: World News from the Middle East brought news that Al Jazeera has been banned from the occupied West Bank by the Palestinian Authority.
Our newest addition to Link’s news lineup, Al Jazeera English World News, reported on the execution-style killing of Natalya Estemirova, a human rights campaigner and independent journalist critical of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Despite the mortal danger that comes with reporting from some of the world’s most dangerous places, Link TV consistently brings you some of the most comprehensive and wide-ranging international news on American television.
So as the brave men and women of the international press corps put their lives on the line to get the story, it’s more important than ever to support the channel that brings their work to a national audience, Link TV, television without borders.
This week Latin Pulse goes to Colombia to investigate the often-dangerous undertakings of independent journalists, in a country plagued by drug-trafficking, corruption, and violence. The journalists are pushing up against the boundaries of free speech as they struggle to tell the stories of the country's bloody reality, a task they feel is key to creating more peaceful Colombia.