Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Price-Anderson Act

Prefatory Note:

A visitor generously suggested ways to improve the accuracy of this article and its present version was written after receiving his comments.


For as long as I can remember, anti-nukes have been claiming that the Price-Anderson Act protects nuclear power plants from liability. The plants are so dangerous, they claim, utilities won't accept responsibility for them.

The facts are very much different. A copy of the law can be found here.

I should say at the outset that I am not an attorney and therefore am not qualified to interpret law or court decisions. That said, when anti-nukes claim that the law protects utilities from liability, they conveniently leave out the fact that the liability limits only apply to federal courts, not to state courts. But don't take my word for it. Here is an excerpt from the US Supreme Court decision in the case of SILKWOOD v. KERR-McGEE CORP., decided January 11, 1984. [source]

"In sum, it is clear that in enacting and amending the Price-Anderson Act, Congress assumed that state-law remedies, in whatever form they might take, were available to those injured by nuclear incidents. This was so even though it was well aware of the NRC’s exclusive authority to regulate safety matters. No doubt there is tension between the conclusion that safety regulation is the exclusive concern of the federal law and the conclusion that a State may nevertheless award damages based on its own law of liability. But as we understand what was done over the years in the legislation concerning nuclear energy, Congress intended to stand by both concepts and to tolerate whatever tension there was between them. We can do no less. It may be that the award of damages based on the state law of negligence or strict liability is regulatory in the sense that a nuclear plant will be threatened with damages liability if it does not conform to state standards, but that regulatory consequence was something that Congress was quite willing to accept."

On the other hand, even this decision accepts the popular view that the original purpose of Price-Anderson was to encourage companies to enter a new field. Since the field is no longer new, one could ask why the law continues to exist. I think the answer lies in the other benefits. One benefit is that it clarifies the US Government’s responsibilities. Every aspect of nuclear energy, including design, construction, and operation, is supervised by the Federal Government. In the case of an accident, and in the absence of legislation, the Government very likely would find itself in the position of defendant. The act clarifies this point: the Government would only be on the hook after all other coverages, from commercial insurance and owners’ assets, have been paid out. A second benefit is that victims of an accident could recover their damages without suing. Under liability law, they would have to determine who was at fault and prove it in court. The process would take years and, even if they won, they’d lose because lawyers would take most of the money. Under Price-Anderson, they’d only have to show they had taken losses and they’d be compensated.

As it is, Price-Anderson is a requirement for anyone doing nuclear work. It doesn’t limit victims’ ability to recover damages. What it does is to guarantee that money will be there to pay them.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Talk with Al Gore

I just read Al Gore's book, The Assault on Reason. He's such an intelligent guy, don't you wish you could sit down with him over coffee and talk about global warming? I've got some thoughts on nuclear energy to share with him. He doesn't say much in his An Inconvenient Truth book on the subject, but he appeared at a House of Representatives hearing last year and nuclear energy came up. Imagine what it would be like if we were in on it:

Mr. Gore says (to Mr. Hastert):
      You mentioned nuclear. I am sure that will come up again. I
am not an absolutist in being opposed to nuclear. I think it is
likely to play some role. I don't think it is going to play a
major role. But I think it will play some additional role, and
I think the reason it is going to be limited is mainly the
costs. They are so expensive, and they take so long to build,
and at present, they only come in one size: extra large. And
people don't want to make that kind of investment on an
uncertain market for energy demand.

Heck, Al, renewables cost more to build than nuclear plants. Look at this. If we're going to replace all the fossil-fired plants in the US, do you really think size is going to be a problem?

(To Mr. Inglis)
      I think that decentralization is the wave of the future.
And also on liquid fuels for road transport, by the way, and
the next generation ethanol the enzymatic hydrolysis stuff that
is coming on line. But on your core choice, I am not opposed to
nuclear. I have deep questions about it. I am concerned about
it. I used to be enthusiastic about it. Back when I represented
Congressman Gordon's district, TVA had 21 nuclear power plants
under construction. And then later, I had represented Oak Ridge
where we were immune to the effects of nuclear radiation so I
was very enthusiastic about it.
      But 19 of those 21 plants were canceled. And I am sure Bart
gets the same questions I used to get about whether those
partly finished cooling towers might be used for a grain silo.
But people are upset still that they have to pay for them and
not be able to get any electricity for them.
      And I think the stoppage of the nuclear industry was really
less due to 3-mile island and Chernobyl and environmental
concerns and more due to the fact that after the OPEC oil
crisis of 1973 and 1979, the projection for electricity demand
went from 7 percent annualized compounded down to 1 percent.

You're right on that one, Al. Growth of just about everything died when Jimmy Carter was president. Then natural gas drove out all its competition. Clean and cheap; what else could anyone want?

(To Mr. Upton)
I don't recognize the quote that you used as one
of mine. I am not saying it wasn't, but I don't really agree
with the way that was phrased.

[Quote from Nuclear Energy Information Resource Center: "I do not
support any increased reliance on nuclear energy; moreover, I
have disagreed with those who have classified nuclear energy as
clean or renewable."]

Yeah, you can't trust anything anti-nukes say.

      I am not a reflexive opponent of nuclear power,
Congressman. I am just a skeptic about nuclear power's
viability in the marketplace. I think that if we let the market
allow the most competitive forms to surface, what we will see
is decentralized generation, widely distributed, we will see an
emphasis on conservation and efficiency and renewable energy.
But where nuclear power is concerned I have expressed my views,
previously, I am not a reflexive opponent, I think there will
be some new nuclear power plants.
      But you mention China. Look at their 5-year plan right now.
You are right, they plan 55 new coal fired power plants per
year. Only three nuclear plants per year. Now why? They don't
have any opposition that they can't overcome pretty easily from
Beijing. But they see the same problems just in practical terms
that a lot of our utilities see. These things are expensive and
complicated. They take a long time and the fragility of the
operating regime has already been seen. I have been to
Chernobyl. I have been to Three Mile Island and I don't want to
exaggerate those problems.
      I think that we can come up with solutions for the dangers
of operator error. I think we can come up with solutions for
long term storage of waste. I don't think Yucca Mountain is it.
And I think if you don't skate past the real scientific
evidence of what they found at Yucca Mountain. What they found
on the geology there makes it simply wrong to put stuff that is
going to need to be contained for tens of thousands of years in
a place that is really not appropriate for it. Now that is my
reading of what the geological survey has said about that. But
I am not opposed to it as a category.

I don't think any of this is wrong, Al. But nobody has suggested an easier way to stave off global warming. Maybe we could ride bicycles and starve like the Chinese did fifty years ago, but I'm guessing that's not going to catch on. If we leave it up to the market to decide we'll just keep on using coal because nothing is cheaper; not nuclear or renewable energy and not even conservation. So to beat global warming we have to start building renewable energy sources and nuclear plants because that's the only way we can grow our construction capacity. The other choice is sitting on our hands and watching the habitat melt away. What do you think?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

S. 2191, The Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2007

This Senate bill is the main legislation under consideration in the US for dealing with greenhouse-gas emissions.

Cap and Trade
Its most important feature is cap-and-trade covering utilities, industries, and motor fuels. It's aggressive enough, with ambitious goals, but it has so many escape clauses and offramps that its value has to be deeply discounted. Moreover, the emission rights will be auctioned off to support favorite causes, so it is actually a tax. Many analysts believe taxing carbon emissions is the only way to reduce them. Maybe they're right, but if it's a tax it won't fly. That's a given in US politics. People want the services and benefits that come from government largesse, but they won't vote for any politician who makes them pay taxes.

That pretty well makes the rest of the subject moot, but we'll proceed anyway because some other points have to be part of future discussions.

Carbon Sequestration
Another major feature is an emphasis on CO2 sequestration. It seems that CO2 producers will get credit for pumping CO2 into the ground. The bill contains provisions for determining the capacity of storage locations, but not for evaluating whether or not the CO2 will stay in place.

To date, no sequestration site in the world has been tested for leakage. Furthermore, no one knows how to conduct such a test.

On the subject of sequestration, Senator Jeff Bingaman makes this remark: "Currently there are no formal site selection criteria for carbon dioxide injection wells that will be used for carbon storage." He goes on to explain that the EPA has no clue how to set the criteria. That reflects the impossibility of sequestering CO2 with any confidence.

Under the terms of this bill, utilities can pump CO2 into the ground and act as though it never was generated, without any assurance it won't leak into the atmosphere some decades later. If it does leak, utilities will have paid large amounts for this program, all for no purpose.

Energy Supply
The US Energy Information Administration did a
study to compare the effects of the bill, under various scenarios. What the study showed is especially instructive.

The results seem obvious, but prove that nuclear opponents are wrong. Even under the most optimistic conditions, renewables won't provide the energy the country needs. The simple fact is that if nuclear energy isn't developed to its full potential, then the US will depend more on natural gas, a substance in great demand and short supply, and coal. Moreover, some of the coal combustion would have to be subject to carbon sequestration, an untested and dubious concept.

One hesitates to criticize. The world faces an enormous challenge and it's only natural that practical people would turn to easy-sounding solutions such as carbon taxes and sequestration. Sadly, those won't succeed; one is political poison and the other is imaginary.

Instead, we have to commit ourselves to the hard work of reshaping our energy usage. Instead of auctioning off pollution rights, we have to outright ban the installation of fossil-fueled generating plants, either new or replacement capacity. New electricity demand must be met by a combination of renewable and nuclear sources, and offset by efficiency and the curtailment of low-return energy use. Vehicle efficiency has to be raised much more than the feeble changes Congress has mandated. Bureaucratic obstacles to synthetic fuels like Green Freedom should be cleared and, if it's necessary, subsidies that currently go to fossil-fuel producers should be directed toward offsetting the cost difference between petroleum fuel and synthetic fuel.

That's what it will take to beat this problem.