Nuclear subsidies from Price-Anderson: the population issue

Written by dkoplow Posted: 06/27/2011 10:27 PM EDT

Though there have been very few quantitative estimates of the subsidy value of the accident liability cap under the Price-Anderson Act, it is clear that this value has not remained static.  On the positive side, increases in required coverage over the past 20 years have provided some  additional insurance, and sharp increases in plant load factors increase total kWh of nuclear-generated electricity, helping to reduce the subsidy per kWh of power.

Working in the opposite direction are a number of other important factors that more than overwhelm these positive trends.  Higher damage awards in accident cases of all sorts reduce the share of total damages that individuals incur in an accident that can be met by the required coverage levels under Price-Anderson's.  Surging populations, the real estate they live and work in, and the value of that real estate, all make the magnitude of damage from any accident scenario substantially larger than thirty years ago.

The Associated Press has modeled just how much population has surged around the nation's nuclear plants, dramatically illustrating this point.  Using a computer-assisted population analysis, they conclude that the population surrounding plants is 4 1/2 times larger than in 1980.  Roughly 120 million people -- 40 percent of the US population -- live within 50 miles of a reactor.  This is the radius that the US government suggested people evacuate from in the recent Japanese accident.  The AP notes that the evacuation zone at US reactors has remained frozen at only 10 miles since 1978.  Many of the evacuation scenarios remain poorly updated and untested, particularly given the enormous changes in the affected populations since those plans were first developed. 

It is useful to remember that the emergency plans for the BP Horizon rig were also poorly constructed, boilerplate, and untested; and that this was a factor in the resultant problems.  The situation with nuclear plants seems even worse:

Last week, the AP reported that federal regulators, working in concert with industry, have repeatedly weakened or failed to enforce safety standards so old reactors can keep operating. The records review included tens of thousands of pages of government and industry studies, test results, inspection reports and regulatory policy statements.

A nice piece of work by AP, though certainly a sobering read.  It seems unlikely that the NRC plans to do much about this problem, though it is certainly a core part of its regulatory mission.