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[cdn-nucl-l] Price-Anderson Act renewal
Posted in The Nation, November 26, 2001 and at:
How can a paper editor consider himself expert enough to claim the Pebble Bed
Modular Reactor is "a most terrorist-friendly power plant"?
Who Pays for Nuclear Power?
by Matt Bivens
Matt Bivens, a former editor of the Moscow Times who now lives in Maryland,
reported from Russia for nine years for publications ranging from the Los
Angeles Times to Harper’s Magazine.
Congress is pondering ways to shore up security and safety at the nation's
nuclear power plants, from stockpiling medicines for radiation poisioning to
expanding emergency evacuation plans. But the dark horse coming up fast is
something else: an industry-favored piece of legislation that, in the
unfortunate event of a nuclear catastrophe, makes damn sure that someone else
foots the cost.
The Price Anderson Act has discouraged the development of safer, less costly
sources of energy than nuclear power. Join your voice to those calling for
Congress to not renew its status by signing this online petition.
When it comes to improving security, the industry's critics are active.
Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey has introduced a bill in the House to
create potassium iodide stockpiles near nuclear power plants. Potassium iodide
was administered in 1986 to Soviet children who were near the Chernobyl
disaster, and is credited with preventing thousands of thyroid cancers among
them. "Potassium iodide is to radiation exposure what Cipro is to anthrax,"
Markey said in a statement.
New York Senator Hillary Clinton also has called for potassium iodide
stockpiles, along with a plan to evacuate New York City should anything--
terrorist-sponsored or otherwise--go wrong at the Indian Point nuclear power
plant, just 40 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan. Clinton and her
Democratic colleague from Nevada, Harry Reid, also favor legislation to
federalize nuclear plant security, a la the airports.
But talk is cheap, and the action will start Tuesday, November 27, on the House
Floor. Louisiana Republican Billy Tauzin has scheduled a vote on HR 2983, a
bill to renew the Price-Anderson Act, a 1950s-era insurance subsidy for the
nuclear power industry that expires next summer. Tauzin's Commerce Committee
tentatively approved the bill in a debate-free Halloween-day voice vote; on
Tuesday, the bill will come before the full House for an up-down vote, under
rules limiting debate and prohibiting amendments.
"Well, now isn't this just like the nuclear industry and its allies, bringing
us a real turkey for Thanksgiving?" complains a statement by Public Citizen,
the consumer advocacy group. "Attaching a controversial piece of legislation to
unrelated legislation, just after a major national holiday, without debate,
about limiting industry liability on hundreds of nuclear reactors after the
September 11th tragedy?"
Insurers are pros at assessing risk; when the federal government started
talking up civilian nuclear power plants in the 1950s, insurers assessed the
risks and ran for cover. Enter the 1957 Price-Anderson act, which today limits
the nuclear industry's collective liability for any mishaps to a ballpark of
about $12 billion. For comparison, estimates of the costs of Chernobyl run to
about thirty times that; while a 1982 study by the Sandia National Laboratories
suggested the cost of a major US nuclear accident would run to more than forty
times the industry's current liability cap (in today's dollars). That's to say
nothing of the human costs in immediate deaths and long-term cancers.
What happens if HR 2983 is voted down, and Price-Anderson not renewed? Most
likely, no new nuclear power plants would be built. As even Vice President Dick
Cheney has conceded, without Price-Anderson's security, "Nobody's going to
invest in nuclear power." Voting down HR 2983 would in particular drive a stake
through the heart of projects like the new-fangled Pebble Bed Modular Reactor--
a most terrorist-friendly power plant, because its designs don't include a
concrete containment building around the reactor.
But with or without HR 2983, existing nuclear plants keep their insurance
breaks--and, no doubt, industry spokespeople will continue to boast that
taxpayer-subsidized nuclear power is "cheap." Congress could, of course, revoke
those protections, and force the industry to buy its own insurance--i.e., to
pay its own way. But no one in Congress is seriouly discussing such radical
free-market shock therapy.