BP. Bhopal, Chernobyl

Writing in a recent issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Madhusree Mukerjee wonders why, at a time President Obama is demanding that BP fully compensate Americans for the Gulf disaster, his administration is simultaneously "leaning on the Indian government to render its citizens unable to claim damages from U.S. power-plant suppliers in the event of a nuclear accident." Pursuant to the controversial nuclear commerce deal that the Bush administration negotiated with India, the United States would like India to adopt nuclear liability limits analogous to those in the U.S. Price Anderson Act, which caps corporate liability for a U.S. nuclear accident at $11 billion. A proposed Indian law would limit corporate liability in that country to $110 million.

Yet the Chernobyl accident, notes Mukerjee, a former staff editor at Scientific American and Physics Today magazines, caused an estimated $250 billion in damages. Closer to home, the Indian government estimated the cost of the horrendous Bhopal chemical leak at $3.3 billion, yet the most it was able to recover from Union Carbine was $470 million. The December 1984 leak at the pesticide factory killed 15,000 people and maimed another 100,000.

Mukerjee is not the only person connecting nuclear liability exposure with the Gulf situation, which of course is a vivid reminder that industrial accidents worse than anything imagined somehow keep happening. Peter Bradford, a former commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, points out that the $54.5 billion in loan guarantees that the U.S. government is offering for new nuclear power plant projects amounts to an exposure of $500 for every American family. Bradford complains that although nuclear investors will be required to pay the U.S. Treasury a fee to compensate for the financial risk U.S. citizens are assuming, fees will be negotiated in secret and remain secret.

My own position? Though I'm on-record with my belief that nuclear energy will have to be part of the long-term answer to global warming and energy security, I'm also on-record as being opposed to liability caps like Price Anderson. If nuclear energy is as safe as its proponents claim, the industry should be able to get along without those limits. If nuclear construction cannot proceed without them, so be it.