Federal parties have opportunity to increase nuclear liability limit

Green Peace: Shawn Patrick Stensil - November 20th, 2009

Martin Mittelstaedt asks in today’s Globe and Mail how much a reactor operator should be required to pay out to victims in case of a nuclear accident. The Harper government doesn’t think much. It wants to short change Canadians and require less industry compensation than other western countries - just $650 million.

The costs of a large scale nuclear accident would be enormous, but the government simply dismisses the possibility of Chernobyl scale accident. Reactor vendors and operators, however, take the risk seriously and won’t run their reactors without this special legal protection. Good reason to doubt the government’s claims.

The Harper government, however, claims that $ 650 million is sufficient for two reasons: it would cover the cost of what they deem “foreseeable” accidents and – the real reason – the financial capacity of the insurance industry to insure the reactors. This factor, however, just changed and so should the law.

Back when the Nuclear Liability and Compensation Act (NLCA) was first put before Parliament in 2007 the insurance industry told the government it was only capable of insuring each Canadian reactor for $650 million (the current cap is a ridiculous $75 million).

Capping reactor operator liability acts as a hidden subsidy to the nuclear industry (green energy isn’t protected in this way), shifting responsibility for the clean up of nuclear pollution from the nuclear industry to the tax-payer. A Greenpeace report issued this week estimates this subsidy ranges from $4.8 to 9.7 billion annually.

One would think that current Conservative government, which prides itself on protecting tax-payers, would jump at any opportunity to shift liabilities from the tax-payer to the nuclear industry. At hearings of the Natural Resources Committee on the NLCA this week, the Nuclear Insurance Association of Canada (NIAC) gave the government such an opportunity.

NIAC’s Dermot Murphy told the committee they could go beyond the $650 million liability cap, saying:

“In our appearance before the committee last time, we advised the committee that the insurance market could provide $650 million Canadian capacity. I am now pleased to report that it appears likely, barring any unforeseen events, that the nuclear insurance market will be able to provide $1 billion Canadian in capacity.”

The minimum insurance amount required by other Western countries is 700 million Euros – over a billion dollars Canadian. Mr. Murphy’s admission provides the federal government an opportunity to meet Western standards while shifting liabilities from the tax-payer back to the nuclear industry.

This is a great opportunity, but will the government – and the opposition parties – support revising the legislation? Or will they give into nuclear industry pressure to keep the subsidies flowing?

We’ll know the answer Monday when the Natural Resources Committee votes on the bill. We have a minority Parliament so the Liberals, Bloc and NDP could easily change the bill. There’s no good reason, however, for all parties, including the tax-payer friendly Conservatives, to support the change.

The nuclear lobby, of course, is better at getting getting subsidies than building reactors (They have managed to get $650 million out of the Harper government just this year). We’ll see Monday whether the federal parties work together to protect Canadians or just give in to the nuclear lobby.