Fukushima offers a lesson in liability

Japan still hasn't recovered from the 2011 tsunami, which caused a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant. (AFP, Jiji Press)

Japan still hasn't recovered from the 2011 tsunami, which caused a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant. (AFP, Jiji Press)

Two years after the second biggest nuclear disaster in history.

No one has received sufficient compensation to rebuild their lives, which were shattered by the tsunami that struck on March 11 2011, causing a triple meltdown at Fukushima and large releases of radioactivity into the environment.

Their homes remain in the exclusion zone, which can only be entered under government supervision, but there has not yet been a single payment that fully compensates any individual for the loss of their property.

Early estimates put the damages from the Fukushima disaster at up to US$250-billion. In August 2012, the Japanese government was forced to nationalise Tepco, the utility responsible for the Fukushima nuclear plant, because its liabilities outweighed its assets.

More than 10 000 people have filed suits against Tepco claiming negligence, wrongful death and damage to health and property.

The tragedy of Fukushima has shown how utilities operating nuclear reactors are not ready to cover the damage and loss resulting from a severe nuclear accident. Under Japan’s current liability system, nuclear suppliers General Electric, Hitachi and Toshiba –which provided the Fukushima reactors based on a flawed design – are not required to pay anything in case of an accident.

Serious flaws
This means that, rather than those responsible for the disaster paying for the damages, the bulk of the costs will be paid by Japanese taxpayers.

This incredibly unfair system is exposed in a new Greenpeace International report, Fukushima Fallout: Nuclear Business Makes People Pay and Suffer.

The report details how serious flaws in nuclear regulations worldwide and the limited capacity of nuclear plant operators and suppliers to cover liabilities leave the public to shoulder the vast majority of the costs in the event of a nuclear accident.

In South Africa, the level of financial security to be provided by Eskom for Koeberg’s nuclear installation licence was R2.4-billion for the 2004-2005 financial year, according to the National Nuclear Regulator Act of 1999.
This amount of insurance is so low that if there was a Fukushima-level disaster at Koeberg it would bankrupt the state.

South Africa is planning to build nuclear power stations and have a fivefold increase in nuclear energy from the current output of 1 800MW to 11500MW by 2024.

We must learn from the Fuku-shima crisis, and ensure that South Africa strengthens its nuclear liability laws to protect its citizenry and not the industry.

These laws should be based on the principle that the polluter pays, not the public. They should provide ways to prevent or remedy environmental damage and should directly and fully compensate victims.

If the nuclear industry is so sure its technology is safe, why is it so afraid to be held accountable through a fair liability policy?

Ferrial Adam is the communications director of Greenpeace Africa

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