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Price tag for Price-Anderson Act.

Price tag for Price-Anderson Act

Congressional committees scrambledthis week to try and beat the clock on renewal of an act that provides coverage to the public in case of a nuclear accident. The apparent failure to renew the act by its Aug. 1 expiration date won't affect commercial plants. But if a renewal is not passed by the end of September, it could leave several Department of Energy (DOE) contractors without coverage.

Called the Price-Anderson Act, thelaw currently requires each of the nation's 109 reactor licensees to subscribe to the full amount of private insurance available ($160 million) and be responsible for a retrospective $5 million regardless of who has the accident, bringing the total of $705 million available for compensation. The liability for nuclear contractors hired by the DOE is $500 million, all of which would be paid by the government.

If the act is not renewed, it means thatthe Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the DOE will not be able to enter into any new indemnity contracts. Existing commercial plants are indemnified for life and therefore wouldn't be affected, but the DOE usually contracts out for about five years, and has contracts expiring Sept. 30 with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, all contracted through the University of California. Without renewal, those operations are no longer covered in case of an accident.

But DOE is looking into several optionsthat would provide coverage to its California contracts, says press officer Jack Vandenberg. One proposal is to use the War Powers Act to indemnify defense-related contractors. This would provide coverage in case of an accident, but requires lengthy contract arrangements with all contractors and subcontractors involved. And if a company that was not separately contracted by DOE were to cause an accident, it would have to provide its own coverage for the damages, according to a DOE lawyer. Under Price-Anderson, payment is made regardless of who is liable.

In an effort to circumvent such asituation, three House committees responsible for nuclear power issues last week compromised on separate bills and introduced a consensus bill into the House. That bill recommends that the liability limit be set at about $7 billion, including a retrospective assessment of $63 million per plant. The measure was expected to reach the House floor for debate late this week, says Kevin Billings, legislative director of the American Nuclear Energy Council.

In the Senate, however, no such consensuswas reached, leading two committees to separately introduce their own versions of the bill for consideration. The bills, which set liability limits at $6.7 and $7 billion, were not expected to reach the floor for a vote by the Aug. 1 deadline. Although the bills do differ somewhat, most address measures that:

allow for periodic updating of theliability limit into current U.S. dollars

strengthen the third tier of coverageof the act, which now says only that if an accident exceeds liability limits, Congress will take "whatever additional action is necessary'

extend the act from 10 to 30 years

raise the DOE's liability limit to thesame level as that of commercial licensees.
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Author:Hartley, Karen
Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 1, 1987
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