But insurance and risk assessment experts say that's not even close to the truth, and that taxpayers will get stuck funding billions of dollars to cover claims for loss of life, property and business, as well as decontamination.
The rapidly escalating estimates on the economic cost of the Japanese nuclear debacle is anticipated to be at least $500 billion, and the Japanese people are far, far less litigious than people on this side of the Pacific.
But the U.S. nuclear industry says the public's wallet will remain untouched because of the Price-Anderson Act passed by in 1957.
This legislation was deemed crucial more than a half-century ago when the obsessive belief that nuclear power was the answer to America's energy needs first surfaced. But no private insurance company was willing to step up and fully insure a civilian nuclear power plant. The devotees to using radioactive material worried that without insurance, the peaceful use of the atom would end before the first watt of energy was produced.
The meticulously maintained files of the Congressional Research Service show that lobbying from industry groups and some federal agencies was intense and effective. An amendment addressing the insurance needs was quickly crafted to the 1946 Atomic Energy Act.
According to a 2008 report by the World Nuclear Association, an international nuclear trade organization, the Price-Anderson Act originally limited liability for any single nuclear accident to $500 million in government funds, plus the maximum liability insurance available in the private market -- at that time, $60 million -- for $560 million total.
Repeatedly, the act was extended and the liability coverage increased. The last hike was in 2005 and extended the act for another 20 years. President George W. Bush signed off on the longest extension Congress has ever granted
The act requires operators of the plants -- through private insurance and an industrywide pool -- to be responsible for $10 billion. This sounds like a lot of money, but in reality it's more like a pebble in a rock quarry. All we can do is guess what the cost would be from a meltdown of a single reactor in a populated area.
Almost a half a trillion dollars, predicted two professors from the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Wharton School.
In their 2009 study " & Energy: Catastrophic Liabilities," Geoffrey Heal and Howard Kunreuther hypothesized about a deadly meltdown at the Indian Point nuclear power station 25 miles north of . They concluded that radiation from the accident would eventually kill some 64,000 people. This would likely lead to claims of about $384 billion from surviving family members. The economic lost, they estimated, would be between $50 billion and $100 billion
In this scenario, Price-Anderson would limit private liability to about $375 million for the utility owner and $12.6 billion from an industrywide liability pool. Taxpayers would be stuck with the remainder.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association, says the insurance pool was used in 1979 after the crisis at Three Mile Island's Unit 2 in Pennsylvania. The claims totaled $42 million in settlements and $28 million in expenses to people living within 25 miles of the damaged reactor. Payouts included:
- Living expenses for about 3,170 people who chose or were told to evacuate from their homes. They were paid $1.2 million.
- More than $92,000 for lost wages as a result of the accident, which compensated 636 individuals and families.
- And $5 million for the establishment of a public fund in the area.
At TMI, insurers said, there were no substantiated health claims. It was a partial meltdown that released only a small amount of radiation, which required little or no decontamination. Nevertheless, the institute insists that the public will not get stuck with a bill after an accident.
But former NRC Commissioner Victor Gilinsky told AOL News late Thursday that a serious nuclear accident could cost $100 billion or more.
"There is no way that the industry fund will come close to closing that, and they know it," the nuclear physicist said. "They say that taxpayers would be [spared] the cost, because they maintain it will never happen."