One of America’s worst laws and you’ve probably never heard of it
It’s the 1950s. America is enjoying a huge postwar boon. Detroit is the 4th largest city in America with the highest per capita income of any city in America. Elvis is beginning his reign as king of rock and roll.
President Eisenhower launches his “Atoms For Peace” program. The US congress passes the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. It is believed that nuclear energy offers a nearly inexhaustible supply of cheap energy. The new law is created to remove restrictions on materials and technology to allow for the commercial development of nuclear power.
At first development of the nuclear power industry is slow. The technology is simply too dangerous. No company is willing to take on the risk of running a nuclear reactor, because of the potential liability should something goes wrong. And no insurer is willing to insure such a venture.
In order to remove these impairments and give corporations an incentive to invest in nuclear power, congress passes the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnification Act of 1957. The law sets up an insurance fund which all operators of nuclear reactors pay into. In the event of a nuclear accident, the operator’s total liability is limited to the amount paid into the fund. In other words, if there is a major accident at a nuclear power plant, the operator would pay only a small fraction of the actual costs of cleanup, the US taxpayer would foot the rest of the bill.
The law was originally intended to last 10 years but has been extended several times, the last being in 2005 when it was given a 20 year extension to 2025. The act also completely indemnifies any contractor working for the Department of Energy even in the case of willful gross negligence. In other words the DOE hires a corporation to manage a nuclear facility building bombs and no matter how poorly they manage the environmental safety issues involved in running such a facility, their liability is zero.
The nuclear industry loves this law and why wouldn’t they? The government is essentially guaranteeing they will pay only a fraction of the costs of a nuclear accident. The law essentially transfers the risks of running a nuclear reactor from the operator to the American taxpayer. The nuclear power industry continually tells the public how safe nuclear energy is. If it’s so safe, why do they need this legal protection?
This is simply an unjust bad law. If nuclear power is so dangerous that no insurer in their right mind will touch it, then maybe it’s just too dangerous period. And the provisions in the law for DOE contractors are simply ludicrous. An operator of a DOE facility can cut corners, violate safety and environmental laws and there is no way to hold them accountable for it. The Price-Anderson Act is simply bad legislation (unless you’re in the nuclear industry) and should be repealed at once. It is just another example of the American government putting profit over people and corporate financial health over public health.