Fact Sheet on the Price-Anderson Act:
Nuclear Liability Who Pays?


In a Nutshell

The federal Price-Anderson Act is designed to protect the public and the providers of nuclear energy in the event of a nuclear incident. It makes a large pool of money available to compensate members of the public, while limiting the liability of the nuclear power industry.

Eureka County is interested in the Price-Anderson Act because shipments of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste to the U.S. Department of Energy's proposed geologic repository at Yucca Mountain could pass through the County. These shipments could expose Eureka County and its residents to both damage and liability.

If a nuclear incident or an authorized precautionary evacuation occurs during an accident at a power reactor or fuel processing plant, or during shipment of spent nuclear fuel or radioactive waste, the Price-Anderson Act protects anyone who might be liable for damages. Regardless of who is legally liable, the Act provides for payment of claims from one source of money. The federal district court where the incident occurs has jurisdiction, but state law applies when it comes to determining liability, damages, and a claimant's ability to prove causation of injuries.

History

The U.S. Congress enacted the Price-Anderson Act in 1957, and has extended it several times. The latest extension occurred in 1988, and expired in August, 2002. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a reauthorization act in November, 2001, but--to date--the Senate has not acted. The reauthorization would extend the Act to August, 2017.

Definitions

  • "Nuclear incident" means any occurrence causing bodily injury, sickness, disease, or death, or loss or damage to property, or loss of use of property, resulting from the radioactive, toxic, explosive, or other hazardous properties of nuclear material.

  • "Precautionary evacuation" means an evacuation of the public in a specified area near a nuclear facility or transportation route, in the case of an incident involving transportation of nuclear material or waste. The evacuation must be the result of an event that poses an imminent danger of injury or damage from the radiological properties of nuclear materials. It must be initiated by an authorized state or local official who reasonably determines it is necessary to protect the public health and safety.

  • In the event of an "extraordinary nuclear occurrence" or "ENO," the Act imposes strict liability. (In other words, a person who may be liable can't use the defense that the damages were someone else's fault.) Also, people who might have suffered damage (cancer, for instance) from an ENO are not subject to the usual statute of limitations, if they make a personal injury claim within three years of discovering the injury. However, the government did not declare the Three Mile Island accident, our worst nuclear incident, to be an ENO. So it is unlikely that a less serious accident in Eureka County would be declared an ENO either.

How Price-Anderson Works

For accidents at nuclear power plants, the money to cover any damages comes from two sources. First, each power plant must carry $200 million in liability insurance for each reactor. Second, any damages over $200 million and up to $9.43 billion are assessed equally against all operating reactors, in annual installments of $10 million or less. As of 1998, there were 103 operating reactors in the U.S.

For an incident or precautionary evacuation involving a shipment to the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, the money to cover damages comes from the Nuclear Waste Fund, which is paid for by utility ratepayers. Payments for damages are also limited to $9.43 billion.

The Price-Anderson Act and Three Mile Island (TMI)

After the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island II reactor in Harrisburg, PA, the plant's primary insurance coverage paid $1.2 million in evacuation claims and $92,000 in lost wage claims. The owners settled a class-action lawsuit for property loss, evacuation losses, and expenses for individuals, corporations, and municipalities in 1981. In 1982, after a favorable ruling from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the State of Pennsylvania and several municipalities received $225,000 for the costs of emergency services provided during the accident.

However, more than 2,000 personal injury claims stemming from the TMI accident are still pending in court--23 years later. A small group of plaintiffs was chosen for a "mini-trial," and federal District Court Judge Sylvia Rambo dismissed their lawsuits on summary judgment, after ruling that their expert testimony was inadmissible. The Appeals Court upheld that ruling, but refused to extend it to the thousands of plaintiffs who were not included in the mini-trial.

In the TMI personal injury cases, the main issue is whether radiation from the accident caused cancer among the exposed population. The only way to establish that is through epidemiological studies. Such studies are complicated, since about 33% of the population in industrialized countries will develop cancer in any event, and because natural and man-made radiation is normally present in the environment.

What about an accident in Eureka County?

If there is a release of radiation, or a precautionary evacuation, one would have to sue to recover damages. The federal district court in Reno would have jurisdiction, but if no "ENO" is declared, Nevada's liability laws would apply. If someone has a strong case, the DOE might settle. Otherwise, the case would go to court, and the person bringing the lawsuit would need attorneys and expert witnesses. Based on experience to date with Price- Anderson, a person can realistically expect compensation only in the most clear-cut cases.

For more information. . .

Eureka County is preparing a complete report on the Price-Anderson Act, and will post it on the website soon. The report will also be available at the Public Works office in Eureka and the Crescent Valley Town Center.

This fact sheet was written for Eureka County by David Ziegler, of Ziegler Technical, November 2002.