2002 November 13
To the Editor,
The nuclear industry has never claimed to be "absolutely safe", and it would be interesting to know if Lawrence Solomon has evidence for his allegation to the contrary ("Nuclear risk: Make 'em pay", 2002 November 6).
Absolutely no human endeavour is absolutely safe, but some are safer than others. The nuclear industry's record is exemplary; in all probability it is the best of any large-scale electricity generation technology.
The industry's confidence in the technology is embodied in its capital investment, and the indemnification thereof. A shoddy and unsafe practice will first and foremost lead to loss of assets: about a billion bucks per reactor. Larger utilities (e.g. OPG) self-insure this risk; smaller utilities (e.g. NB Power) obtain private insurance. Suppliers to the nuclear industry are not absolved of liability if their product causes plant damage.
In the case of off-site consequences, the Nuclear Liability Act (NLA) channels all public liability to the operator, and coverage is "no fault". This avoids a lengthy litigious process and thus directly benefits the consumer. It's a good deal you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
In return, the operator's liability is capped, currently at $75 million per reactor. While the level itself is debatable (and currently under review), the requirement is quite clear: without restraint, public perception in a litigious society can destroy a good industry. One need only look at the farcical aftermath of Three Mile Island, despite its zero direct off-site consequences, for an example. For obvious reasons, anti-nuclear activists favour an open-ended free-for-all that leverages the fear and loathing they trade in.
The NLA places public damages exceeding the limit in the hands of the government, as would be the case for any large-scale disaster.
So the public is most definitely insured against nuclear accidents, although you won't find it in your homeowner's coverage. This is often reported, as Solomon does, as trepidation on the part of the insurance industry, whereas the reasoning lies more in the industry's distaste for insuring somebody twice.