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.