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.
Located about 50 kilometers from Barcelona, Manresa is a small, laid back Catalonian city. It has its picturesque Old Section as well as an impressive, well-appointed cathedral, and the famous monastery of Montserrat is perched on a nearby rocky mountaintop. But the Fira Mediterránia de Manresa, a four day celebration and Trade Fair going into its 16th year, stirs the place up and brings the population into the concert halls and out onto the streets to enjoy a meticulously programmed whirlwind of music, cinema, dance, theater and more. The joint gets jumpin'. If you’ve got a trip to Spain planned in November, make sure you include this festival in your itinerary.
Because the event takes place all over town, it was necessary to pick and choose my coverage and up front I'll tell you that what I have captured in my video is only a small slice of it. In particular, I did not cover the imported acts, because I was curious about the local Catalan culture specifically, and fine as these other artists were, I felt they would divert me from my focus. I'll always regret not catching Hermanos Cuberos, who according to the festival book combine music from the Alcarra region of Spain with bluegrass!
And I also have to say a word about the food. It was everywhere, and if you knew where to go, (and could deal with the siesta closings) it was excellent. I brought back 2 bags of little dried local mushrooms which I am using slowly, when the dish calls for their distinctive taste and texture. They are tiny treasures.
I was fortunate to be staying at the same hotel as Dave Ellwand who has researched and written about Catalan food, music and mores. Our conversations over breakfast were informative and tantalizing, so I simply had to include him at some point in the video; credit where credit is due. He has provided some links to further information and events below.
And because this video is just a quick survey, here are links to full songs.
To see the full song by Evo, go to: inter-muse.com/blog/2013/04/16/evo-performs-at-fira-mediterrania-de-manresa/
To see a (different) full song by Els Berros de la Cort go to: inter-muse.com/blog/2013/01/11/medieval-songs-of-sex-from-catalonia-els-berros-de-la-cort/
For full performance of "Waka Waka" by Els Laietans go to: inter-muse.com/blog/2013/03/16/els-laietans-at-the-fira-mediterrania-de-manresa/
For more information about the festival visit: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fira_Mediterrania_in_Manresa
For an archived radio programme about the previous year's festival: prx.org/pieces/85507-mediterrania-taste-of-the-music-of-people-of-ca
Links to Catalan Music resources:
Government culture ministry sites: Catalan!Arts: traditional music cd (free) catalanarts.cat/web/?q=en/node/412
And a free E Magazine: issuu.com/catalanarts/docs/catalan__music_emagazine_eng_4
An earlier edition about Roots music from the region: issuu.com/catalanarts/docs/catalan__music_emagazine_eng_2/1
CAT centre has an annual festival of Catalan/Valencian/Balearic/Basque performances from January to April as well as year round music teaching and summer schools.* Information about all festivals is easiest to get on catalanarts.cat/web/?q=en
For more of Michal's world music videos visit inter-muse.com.
Following in the wake of shale gas and coal-bed methane (CBM) extraction is the spectre of underground coal gasification (UCG). But if we adopt these wholesale we could close off any hope of stepping back from the climate change brink, says UK campaign group Frack Off.
The earthquakes caused by the first attempt to frack a shale gas well in the UK, almost two years ago, were a wake up call that has implications far beyond the damage caused to Cuadrilla's well-bore. When your plan for getting gas is fracturing rock two miles under the Lancashire countryside, you know the cheap and easy energy is long gone.
The signs have been there for many years, from oil rigs pushing out into deeper and deeper water to the vast tar sands mining operations in Alberta, getting energy is taking increasing amounts of effort. People have been slow to connect the dots but now with the exploitation of unconventional gas threatening to spread thousands of wells, pipelines and other industrial infrastructure across the country, the issue of this relentless rise in energy extraction effort is finally beginning to get the attention that it deserves.
Like yeast growing in a vat, the fundamental question has always been whether industrial society will be poisoned by it's own waste (alcohol in the case of yeast) before it runs out of resources (sugar). While significant attention has been paid to the relentless build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, worrying about running out fossil fuels has been very much a fringe activity.
The answer to this question has now become somewhat clearer, though it is much more nuanced than most people would expect. Rather than destruction by environmental crisis ("climate change") or economic crisis ("peak oil") we face an intricately linked combination of the two ("extreme energy"). This is not to deny the importance of either climate change or peak oil, but they not only have the same cause but are happening in the context of each other, so neither can be viewed in isolation.
As our society's unsustainable consumption of energy depletes easier to extract resources, it is driving the exploitation of evermore extreme and damaging energy sources. From fracking to the push to build a string of new biomass power stations which will devour the world's remaining forests and the plans for a wave of new, more dangerous, nuclear power stations, energy extraction is becoming much more destructive.
In the past the dominant environmental impact of exploiting fossil fuels was the impact of the carbon emissions associated with burning them but as the effort required for energy extraction has grown, so have the environmental consequences of the extraction processes themselves. The poster child for this effect are the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, but across the globe, from the Arctic Ocean to the rainforests of Borneo, energy extraction is driving increasing environmental destruction.
A common propaganda tool is to portray such concerns as a stark choice between economic growth and environmental preservation, but in reality extreme energy is as damaging to people's economic well-being as it is to the environment.
As extraction effort grows, a greater fraction of economic activity must be allocated to the energy sector. In a market economy the mechanism by which this is achieved is, of course, rising energy prices, which will have the effect of diverting resources away from other activities.
In the last decade the fraction of the global economy devoted to energy extraction has almost tripled, to over 10 percent of GDP. If the use of more extreme extraction methods increases then an even greater proportion of the worlds resources must be sacrificed to these efforts.
This path leads to a world where energy extraction dominates the economy, and the majority of the population lives in its shadow. Look at the Niger Delta to see what such a world looks like.
The greatest threat
In the UK unconventional gas is by far the greatest threat. Despite the North Sea in terminal decline and increasing pressure on imports there is an insidious push to increase our dependence on gas. Fracking is seen as the way to achieve this but even if is feasible, it would require drilling of tens of thousands of wells and the devastation of the huge swathes of countryside. This will result in toxic and radioactive water contamination, air pollution, severe health effects in human and animals and increased greenhouse gas emissions all for a very short term hit of extremely expensive gas.
Following in the wake of shale gas and coal-bed methane (CBM) is the even more dire spectre of underground coal gasification (UCG) which involves partially burning coal underground and bringing the resulting gases to the surface. UCG has an even worse record of environmental contamination and could potentially emit enough carbon to raise global temperatures by up to 10 degrees Celsius.
A wholesale adoption of fracking and associated methods would close off perhaps our last chance to step back from the brink. Extreme energy requires a dedication to energy production to the exclusion of all else, which would radically alter the structure of our society.
Increasingly, more expensive energy infrastructure must be built, which will divert huge amounts resources away from worthwhile activities. It will quickly become the case that the largest single consumer of the energy produced will be energy extraction processes themselves. We will end up on a treadmill running faster and faster just to stand still as everything falls apart around us.
The decision we face is between prioritising abstract notions of profit and growth or the real well-being of communities and ecosystems. The two can no longer pretend to coexist.