Recalculating the costs of nuclear energy

International working group explores post-accident compensation

By Jonathan Miller, Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies

It has happened before, and it almost certainly will happen again.

A nuclear reactor melts down, and a radioactive cloud makes the surrounding area uninhabitable. Tens of thousands of people are forced leave their homes, schools, workplaces, and businesses. Some die, some become acutely ill, while others don’t feel any symptoms.


Safety workers prepare to enter the Fukushima plant, which was damaged in a storm and tsunami in 2011.

Meanwhile, people living hundreds of kilometers away find dangerous levels of radioactivity in the plants and animals they rely on for food.

What does society owe these people? Should they be given money? If so, how much, and for how long? Should they be relocated? Reimbursed for lost wages? Who is eligible? Who pays? Who decides?

These are among the questions to be tackled by a new multinational, multidisciplinary working group organized by the Meridian 180 project of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and Cornell Law School in collaboration with the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.

The group was launched at Meridian 180’s conference, “Developing Proposals for Risk Mitigation in the Asia-Pacific Region” in Okinawa, Japan, in July 2016. After hours of discussion, the members agreed to work together on a comparative study of how different societies have handled the compensation of victims of nuclear accidents.

Anticipating disaster

“Our assumption is that there will be another nuclear disaster in the near future,” said anthropologist Hirokazu Miyazaki, director of the Einaudi Center and organizer of the group. “But hardly anyone has looked at what happens in the aftermath. When we think about the true cost of nuclear energy, we need to take this into account.”

Post-disaster compensation is always controversial, but it is particularly urgent in Japan, where the economic, social, health, and emotional aftershocks of the Fukushima disaster are still being felt.

Several members of the group are lawyers, legal scholars, and social scientists working with Fukushima victims who have lost their homes, livelihoods, or communities. Others have studied the history, politics, and financing of nuclear energy in Russia, the United States, Korea, France, and elsewhere.

“I can’t imagine a more qualified group of people to take this on,” Miyazaki said.

Nuclear working group
The working group met in Okinawa in July 2016.

The idea behind the study is not to promote a pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear position, he explained, but to help citizens and policy makers everywhere to better understand the real risks and costs of the technology, and to better prepare for future crises.

Miyazaki said he expects the final product to be an ebook that presents national case studies, along with a summary that puts the findings in perspective. As with other Meridian 180 outputs, it will be made available in English, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese.

A varied landscape

Different countries have approached compensation in very different ways. There are no international standards for how to determine eligibility or liability, how to calculate awards, whether to allow class or mass action suits, or how to adjudicate disputes. National policies vary with everything from the structure of a country’s legal system to the relationship between political leaders and the nuclear industry.

After the disaster at the state-owned Chernobyl power plant in 1986, for instance, Soviet authorities decided to treat victims as they would treat wounded soldiers returning from war. If they could prove their injuries, they were declared “Chernobyl veterans” and given free transportation, priority access to health care, and other benefits.

Three Mile Island
Three Mile Island, with deactivated reactor at left, after its emergency in 1979.

In the U.S., government-mandated private insurance covered compensation costs after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, but it took decades to agree on who qualified for funds.

It wasn’t until 2003 that the last claims against the plant’s operator were settled, in the form of a successful class action suit by those living within a 25-mile radius of the plant.

In Japan, where tens of thousands of people remain displaced by contamination from the Fukushima plant, government and civil society are still trying to work out a fair and effective compensation scheme more than five years after the accident. That is in part because the costs are so high, but also because rules governing compensation for nuclear accident victims exempt plants from full responsibility in the case of natural disasters.

One of the most difficult challenges in devising a compensation scheme is the fact that the health and environmental damage from nuclear exposure sometimes only becomes apparent years after the original incident. By looking at accidents that occurred decades ago, the working group will be able to track how victims’ claims and needs evolve over time.

A team met at Waseda University in Tokyo in late July to begin to gather data for a Japanese case study. Other teams will be working on their own reports over the coming months, using collaborative online tools to discuss, write, and edit their drafts.