Congress considers bills increasing utilities' liability for accidents

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Congress is in the midst of rewriting the nation's main nuclear insurance law. It is also considering an overhaul of the nation's nuclear power-plant licensing procedures. The fate of both initiatives may indicate the long-term political impact on Capitol Hill of the Soviet nuclear power-plant accident.

Bills are coursing through the legislative machinery in the House and Senate that would renew the Price-Anderson Act, due to expire in August, and raise or remove the limit on compensation in the event of a major accident at a nuclear power plant.

In addition, legislation is under consideration in both houses that would remove many of the hurdles the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires utilities to clear on the way to operating a nuclear plant.

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While congressional hearings and debate on Price-Anderson have gone on for the better part of a year, it is only in the past week that House and Senate committees have begun to settle on specific legislation.

The main point of contention continues to focus on where to set the liability limit. With public awareness of the potential hazards of nuclear technology heightened once again by the disaster at Chernobyl, observers seem to agree that those who would significantly increase utility liability have seen their arguments strengthened by this week's events.

``It will strengthen the argument for requiring a heightened liability limit,'' predicted Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R) of Vermont, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works and author of a bill that would altogether remove the present $635 million liability cap. Noting that the Soviet plant design is significantly different from those used by US utilities, he added, ``Whether it should is another matter.''

Last week the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted to send a bill to the floor that would set a liability limit of $2.4 billion. The bill also has to pass through Senator Stafford's committee, which has a say in such matters. Meanwhile, the House Interior Committee has begun fashioning its version of the bill. Already, the panel has decided that on a liability limit of $8.2 billion.

Under Price-Anderson, funds available to compensate for damages after a major accident at one nuclear plant would come from a post-accident assessment on all nuclear utilities. The liability is limited to the amount this system can provide, plus a smaller sum from conventional commercial insurance.

A higher liability ceiling is strongly opposed by the nuclear-power industry, which argues that it could be bankrupted in the event of an accident. In addition, industry representatives claim a liability limit over $2.4 billion might make it difficult to get financing for building nuclear power plants.

Advocates of higher liability limits argue that if US nuclear plants are as safe as the industry says, it should not have to worry about the consequences of a major accident. They also say it is unfair to expect federal, state, and local governments to use tax dollars to pay for industry mistakes.

The House and Senate are also considering a handful of bills that would call for standardized plant designs, a one-step plant-licensing process, and protect plants under construction from many NRC-mandated design changes. Environmental and consumer organizations oppose the bills, saying they remove opportunities for public involvement in nuclear plant planning. Industry officials claim the changes bring needed stability to the regulatory process without reducing the public's say.

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