As published in The Guardian on March 11, 2013.
The social aftershocks and radiation fears from the tragic tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster that rocked Japan two years ago today continue to wreak havoc.
Adding insult to the social injury of dislocation, hardship and the mounting "atomic divorces" of families on the edge, the public is being forced to pay for the clean up – a clear failure of the law to hold the nuclear industry liable for its disasters.
In the US, a New Orleans court has the task of ruling whether BP, or its partners Transocean and Halliburton, were negligent in their work on the Macondo oil well, and how much money each company may have to pay for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
BP, which has said its partners shared responsibility for the rig safety, faces fines of more than US$17.5bn if found guilty. That's on top of compensation to claimants not part of an estimated $8.5bn settlement the company already reached last year.
But two years after the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, victims are still awaiting full compensation from an industry that enjoys government protection.
Hundreds of thousands of victims, who fled their homes to escape the release of radiation from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant still live in limbo, unable to return home or rebuild their lives elsewhere. It is heart wrenching to witness the social toll of this avoidable industrial accident, doubly when you see public compensation being subordinated to private profit.
This is the reality of the Fukushima disaster, the result of a protection system that allows nuclear operators to pay only a tiny fraction of the costs of an accident, forcing the public to pay the rest.
Governments set up this protection 60 years ago to help get the nuclear power industry off the ground. Despite the unfairness of the system, governments have done nothing to rectify it. The Fukushima disaster highlights the need for change.
In law, Fukushima plant operator Tepco should pay the full costs of the accident. But there is a loophole: Tepco can't pay. So the government stepped in and nationalised the company, meaning Japanese taxpayers will pay for this disaster.
What's worse, is that this protection system works even better for the companies that supply reactors and other equipment to nuclear operators: they don't pay any of the costs of a disaster.
Big energy giants, such as General Electric, Toshiba and Hitachi, pay nothing if one of their reactors causes a disaster. At Fukushima, all three built reactors based on GE's flawed Mark I reactor design. Concerns that the reactor containment would fail during a major accident proved correct – this is exactly what happened.
The flaw was revealed decades earlier, but the problem wasn't fixed.
But the protection system means that GE, Hitachi and Toshiba and other big companies with enormous wealth are not held liable when their equipment contributes to a disaster.
Greenpeace is calling for the creation of a real nuclear liability system, one that makes both nuclear operators and their suppliers pay all the costs of their failures, not taxpayers.
If reactor suppliers knew they would be held liable in a disaster they would place more attention on the risks. They might even keep their flawed and unsafe products off the market.
India has a law that makes suppliers liable. And it frightens GE. John Flannery, chief executive, said on the 21st February that GE won't pursue the reactor business in India if the law isn't changed. "We are a private enterprise and we just can't take that kind of risk profiles," he said.
Last December, a senior US State Department official also said nuclear companies will "find it difficult" to take part in India's nuclear industry when they are exposed "to the risk of significant financial penalty."
Essentially, they are advocating for continued protection. And the costs of the Fukushima disaster make it crystal clear why nuclear operators and their reactor suppliers demand protection.
The full cost of the Fukushima disaster is estimated at US$250bn.
In a disaster, the protection system in most nuclear countries only requires a nuclear operator to pay a paltry $470m to $2bn and suppliers to pay nothing. Taxpayers pay the difference.
Of course, GE, Hitachi, Toshiba and other nuclear parts suppliers want to maintain the current system. Companies that supply reactors don't like financial risks, even if they don't design safe reactors.
But hundreds of millions of people live near the world's 436 reactors and a disaster at any one of these reactors could be catastrophic. People would suffer and taxpayers would pay almost all of the costs.
Absurdly, the powerful nuclear industry has greater protection and rights than the public – the ones at risk of radiation in a disaster. It's high time for that liability to be given back to the industry.