Senator Weighs Offering Legislation Ending Liability Limits for Nuclear Disasters

U.S. Bernard Sanders (I-VT) covers his face during a 2009 hearing. Sanders is considering introducing a bill that would end liability limits for the nuclear power industry in the event of a disaster.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
Jan. 31, 2014, 10:11 a.m.

Sen­at­or Bern­ard Sanders (I-Vt.) is con­sid­er­ing in­tro­du­cing le­gis­la­tion this year that would over­turn the fed­er­al law in­su­lat­ing the nuc­le­ar power in­dustry from li­ab­il­ity in the event of a cata­strophe.

The ef­fect could be to put en­ergy com­pan­ies — rather than the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment — on the hook for any skyrock­et­ing costs that might fol­low any fu­ture U.S. atom­ic-en­ergy dis­aster.

Un­der the Price-An­der­son Nuc­le­ar In­dus­tries In­dem­nity Act, which Con­gress first passed in 1957 and has since re­newed sev­er­al times, the li­ab­il­ity of nuc­le­ar power plant op­er­at­ors in the event of a dis­aster is lim­ited. The in­dustry pays in­to an in­sur­ance ac­count — es­tim­ated to have a cur­rent value of $12 bil­lion — that is in­ten­ded to un­der­write such ex­pendit­ures as hotel stays, lost wages and re­place­ment of prop­erty for people af­fected by a nuc­le­ar power plant in­cid­ent.

Ab­sent an act of Con­gress pla­cing ad­di­tion­al li­ab­il­ity on the com­pan­ies, any costs that ex­ceed the value of the in­sur­ance fund would have to be covered by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment us­ing tax­pay­er dol­lars.

In ad­di­tion, doc­u­ments re­leased un­der the Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act in re­cent years show that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has not de­cided on a plan for how the ac­tu­al cleanup of the con­tam­in­ated area sur­round­ing a com­prom­ised nuc­le­ar fa­cil­ity would be paid for.

In 2009, U.S. Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion of­fi­cials in­formed their coun­ter­parts at the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment and the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency that the Price An­der­son money likely would not be avail­able to pay for off­s­ite cleanup. The rev­el­a­tion was made pub­lic one year later when in­tern­al EPA doc­u­ments were re­leased un­der the Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act.

New York state of­fi­cials have since ar­gued the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should re­solve the is­sue be­fore re­new­ing li­censes for the In­di­an Point nuc­le­ar power plant, loc­ated just north of New York City.

Dur­ing a hear­ing on Thursday, Sanders de­bated Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues on the Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee who ar­gued that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment plays too big a role in reg­u­lat­ing the en­ergy in­dustry and is thus stifling its growth.

The hear­ing fo­cused on NRC im­ple­ment­a­tion of steps to pre­vent a Fukushi­ma-style cata­strophe in the United States, and com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Bar­bara Box­er (D-Cal­if.) used it as an op­por­tun­ity to chas­tise the agency for what she said was slow fol­low-through.

Sen­at­or James In­hofe (R-Okla.) sug­ges­ted dur­ing the hear­ing “that per­haps we are try­ing to reg­u­late the nuc­le­ar en­ergy in­dustry out busi­ness, just like we’re try­ing to reg­u­late the fossil fuels busi­ness out of busi­ness.”

Sanders countered that the nuc­le­ar power in­dustry would not be able to ex­ist in the United States were it not for the li­ab­il­ity lim­its in fed­er­al law and the gov­ern­ment’s ob­lig­a­tion to cov­er ex­cess costs re­lated to a cata­strophe.

He sug­ges­ted this was iron­ic, giv­en that Re­pub­lic­ans had giv­en “speech after speech” ar­guing that that it is gov­ern­ment that is pre­vent­ing in­dustry from suc­ceed­ing.

“I won­der if any of my con­ser­vat­ive friends would co-spon­sor with me le­gis­la­tion to re­peal Price An­der­son so that we can leave the nuc­le­ar power in­dustry alone and not get in­volved with gov­ern­ment,” Sanders said. “I look for­ward to work­ing with Sen­at­or [Dav­id] Vit­ter [R-La.] or Sen­at­or In­hofe on get­ting the gov­ern­ment out of the nuc­le­ar power in­dustry. Any vo­lun­teers at this point?”

After leav­ing the hear­ing early, Sanders told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire he could in­tro­duce le­gis­la­tion re­peal­ing the law as early as this year.

“We may very well — we’ll look at it,” Sanders told GSN. “I think it’s im­port­ant to deal with some of the hy­po­crisy.”

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