Working group calls for citizen voice in planning for nuclear disasters

Above: Video of the full expert briefing of May 19, 2017 in Brussels, Belgium. 

A version of this article appeared in the Cornell Chronicle

By Jonathan Miller and Heike Michelsen

More than six years after a series of meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant forced more than 160,000 residents to leave their homes, the people of Japan still have no idea how much the disaster will cost, said Takao Suami, professor of law at Waseda University in Tokyo, at an expert briefing in Brussels on May 19.

Even if a number eventually emerges, he added, it will not reflect the full social, psychological, and environmental toll of the accident.

“The Fukushima disaster has not ended,” Suami said. “Thousands of people are still forced to evacuate and cannot return to their homes. Highly contaminated cooling water is leaking into the Pacific Ocean every day.”

The briefing, which compared approaches to compensation for nuclear accident victims in Japan, the United States, and the Soviet Union and successor states, was organized by Cornell's Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and the Meridian 180 program. The panelists were members of a multidisciplinary working group on nuclear energy that the two organizations created last year.


Takao Suami of Waseda University described the impact of the Fukushima disaster. Photo by Michael Chia.

Attendees included high-level European Union officials from Serbia, Slovenia, Ukraine, and Bulgaria, as well as representatives of the European Commission, the European nuclear industry, activists, and scholars. 

In his discussion of the Fukushima case, Suami said a major part of the uncertainty is the amount that Japanese courts will choose to award people whose lives and livelihoods were disrupted when three reactors melted down after a tsunami wiped out the plant’s back-up power system in March 2011.

Official estimates for clean-up and compensation are now twice the approximately $36.2 billion projected shortly after the accident, he said. With roughly $65 billion already paid out, the final toll is unknown.

Suami explained that Japan had a plan in place for compensating disaster victims, but it has proved to be inadequate. Among the basic issues still to be settled are who qualifies for compensation, who should pay, how much they should pay, and where the money should come from.

These are questions people everywhere should be asking as they consider the nuclear option for their energy needs, he and the other panelists suggested.

New urgency in a long-running debate

As nations search for ways to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the long-simmering debate over nuclear power has heated up. Nuclear advocates, opponents, and governments argue over nearly every aspect of the technology, from the cost of construction to the challenge of waste storage to the industry’s relationship with nuclear weapons programs.

But there has been inadequate discussion of what happens when there is an accident, said Cornell law professor and Meridian 180 founder Annelise Riles, who introduced the session.

“Whatever your view of nuclear power is, whatever your view of what the future should be, there needs to be better conversation about how compensation is handled, and what the true costs of nuclear power are,” she said.

Mary Mitchell
Mary Mitchell said it took more than 20 years to settle claims after the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. Photo by Michael Chia.

Presenting the U.S. case, Mary X. Mitchell, an attorney and historian now working as a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, described the official response to a partial meltdown and radiation leak at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania in 1979.

U.S. policy originating in the 1950s was designed to encourage private investment in the peaceful use of nuclear technology, she explained. It did this in part by setting limits on the liability of plant operators and requiring them to carry private insurance.

As it happened, the Three Mile Island incident came nowhere near to challenging the liability caps, Mitchell said. But it did take more than 20 years to settle class-action lawsuits by area residents. And if the accident had been even half as severe as the one at Fukushima Daiichi, it would have far exceeded the liability limits and required special action by the U.S. Congress.

“We should think of Three Mile Island as a dry run illustrating the legal difficulties and the duration of conflict,” Mitchell said.

A transnational challenge

Sonja Schmid, associate professor of science and technology studies at Virginia Tech, presented the case of Chernobyl, which suffered a massive meltdown in 1986 in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The accident required the evacuation of 135,000 people, contaminated vast areas of farmland, and made entire communities uninhabitable. While some health effects were acute and immediate, others took years to emerge.

The Soviet Union, whose nuclear industry was state-owned, had no laws governing severe nuclear accidents. In the absence of compensation guidelines, the government adapted policies for providing basic services and minimum income to war veterans, pregnant women, and disabled people to those who qualified as “Chernobyl veterans.”

The situation was further complicated by the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, which divided the affected area among three different countries, each with its own approach to liability and compensation, and each with its own economic and political challenges.

Among the lessons from Chernobyl, Schmid said, is the importance of international agreements and protocols, as radiation does not respect national borders.

Rebecca Slayton
Rebecca Slayton called for a new forum for citizen participation. Photo by Michael Chia.

In her concluding remarks, Rebecca Slayton, assistant professor of science and technology studies at Cornell and associate director of the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, said it was safe to assume that there will be more nuclear accidents, no matter how diligently designers, operators, and officials work to prevent them.

Slayton noted the failure of existing compensation schemes to meet the real needs of victims, and spoke of the importance of engaging the public in planning for future incidents in a way that is “anticipatory, participatory, and transnational.”

Among those whose voices must be heard, she said, are potential victims of accidents and citizens of countries that have not yet decided whether to adopt nuclear energy.

 “We are calling for the creation of a transnational forum that enables laypersons, experts, and policymakers to discuss nuclear disaster compensation plans before the next disaster occurs,” she said, inviting those in attendance to share their ideas on how to accomplish that.

A discussion session reflected the wide range of interests of those attending the briefing, with questions and comments about private insurance, international law, closure for victims, the sourcing of compensation funds, and the value of nuclear power plants in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Jonathan Miller and Heike Michelsen are associate directors of the Einaudi Center. Dr. Michelsen was the principal organizer of the Brussels event.