In U.S. Nuclear Disaster, Liability Limits Would Not Cover Cost of Cleanup

March 18, 2011

In U.S. Nuclear Disaster, Liability Limits Would Not Cover Cost of Cleanup

Statement of Tyson Slocum, Director, Public Citizen’s Energy Program

See if this sounds familiar.

An energy company’s machinery fails and the environment is polluted with toxins. The energy company puts up a minimum amount of cash to pay for as much cleanup as required by law – but that amount is woefully inadequate. American taxpayers are the ones ultimately on the hook for the remaining money to clean up the corporation’s mess.

Does that ring a bell? That’s what happened with last year’s BP disaster. It is also what will happen if we have a nuclear catastrophe here – although the cost to taxpayers would likely be far greater.

When BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and millions of barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, the $75 million liability required of BP by the federal government did not come close to covering the cost of cleanup and victim compensation. BP, with prodding from the federal government, established a $20 billion escrow fund, which many believe to be inadequate. But that move was voluntary and cannot be expected to happen again.

Similarly, the nuclear industry has a liability cap of $12.6 billion, thanks to the Price-Anderson Act. An individual corporation must pay only $375 million of that, with the balance shared by the industry. The nuclear industry likely will not voluntarily contribute additional money, as was the case with the BP escrow fund. After all, major oil companies like BP are far larger than even the biggest U.S. nuclear utility; in 2010, BP had revenues of $309 billion compared to $18.6 billion for Exelon, America’s largest operator of commercial nuclear reactors.

The trouble is, given the complexity, potential geographical area affected and the nature of a nuclear accident, the cost of cleanup easily would exceed $12.6 billion. What happens when the liability limit doesn’t cover the cost of cleaning up the disaster? American taxpayers must foot the bill.

Notice the trend: Corporations do not clean up their messes – American taxpayers do.

It’s time to get the American people out of the business of bailing out corporations. 

Public Citizen calls on Congress to protect taxpayers and make corporations accountable for their actions by repealing the Price-Anderson Act and holding nuclear power operators – not taxpayers – financially accountable. It is its responsibility.
###