Nuclear Compensation: Lessons from Fukushima

Edited by Hirokazu Miyazaki


Nuclear energy provides 10% of electricity world-wide, a percentage that is likely to increase as nation-states work to fuel growing economies while limiting the devastating environmental effects of carbon-based energy sources. Yet, on the tenth anniversary of Japan's devastating triple disaster, we are reminded that nuclear energy imposes unique risks and burdens on citizens. Between 1979 and 2011, three reactor meltdowns, with distinct causes and effects, have forced communities to deal with the insidious consequences of radiological contamination. Radionuclides, in contrast to many other by-products of energy production, require the interventions of experts to sense and assess their danger. They cannot be readily smelled, tasted, heard, seen, or felt. The pathways of exposure, moreover, are multiple and include full body exposure, inhalation, and consumption of contaminated food sources. Many of these radionuclides linger in environments for decades, centuries, and even millennia in some cases. These features of radiological harm place people affected by radioactive fallout in a difficult position. They must rely on experts to regulate the risks of a disaster and, afterward, to assess its effects and provide a means of redressing their injuries. Across three major disasters—Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011—those affected by nuclear reactor meltdowns have been forced to navigate complicated administrative and legal compensation regimes in an attempt to rebuild their lives and communities. Tax-payers and power companies’ rate-payers, meanwhile, have borne many of the financial burdens of these disasters. When a major nuclear disaster occurs, its effects reach deeply into economy and society, and more often than not these effects extend to people far away from the accident's geographic location.

The fact that up until now, severe nuclear accidents have occurred only rarely, along with the stigma attached to anticipating and planning for nuclear catastrophe, means that public debate on nuclear disasters tends to recede into the background quickly. However, there are important issues that deserve to be addressed in more than an ad hoc fashion; one of them is compensation for victims of nuclear disasters. This report shows that compensation plans have not met the needs of victims of nuclear disasters for three primary reasons:

  1. Compensation plans have been devised by unelected officials and without full public knowledge or participation.

  2. Governments have often capped the liability of the owners of nuclear facilities, which distorts cost-benefit analysis and creates a moral hazard.

  3. International conventions limit compensation and responsibility for nuclear disasters. Both Chernobyl and Fukushima demonstrate that these limits may be too low.

Due to the complexity of nuclear technology and our limited understanding of potential failures, our starting assumption is that there will be additional severe accidents at nuclear reactors in the future.1 In this context, we suggest that issues of compensation be part of nuclear emergency preparedness and response planning. In this report we call for the creation of a forum that enables laypersons and experts to engage in an ongoing conversation about nuclear disaster compensation issues before the next disaster occurs. The forum should include the many groups that are affected by nuclear power and disasters, including nuclear industry representatives, government officials, project finance specialists, political leaders, victims of past disasters, potential victims, taxpayers, and ratepayers. Many methods for enabling conversation between experts and their publics have been developed and so this forum may take a variety of forms, including as a consensus conference. It could take place online and/or include online components. With this report we invite your suggestions for methods of achieving this conversation, as well as your participation in this dialogue.

The final form of the forum must enable three goals. First, a deliberative conversation about nuclear disaster compensation must be anticipatory—that is, it must take place prior to the disaster occurring. Many dedicated professionals are working to prevent future disasters, but the case studies presented later in this report show that governments on the whole have not fully prepared for nuclear disasters before the disasters have occurred. In short:

  • Plans have failed to anticipate the magnitude and types of harms that people experience after disasters, or precisely how people will be compensated.

  • Some plans have created loopholes for “natural” disasters, which may not ensure that owners of nuclear facilities adequately prepare for environmental hazards.

  • Organizational sociologists have shown that interactive complexity and tight coupling, as well as our limited understanding of system properties, make disasters “normal,” even with the best possible management and governance structures in place—and the real world is far from the best possible world.

  • The problem of nuclear disaster compensation has often been marginalized by assurances that the probability of a disaster is very low. As a result, citizens have too often accepted plans for nuclear power because they are assured that a disaster is extremely unlikely, and citizens have not understood the possibly catastrophic consequences of a disaster. However, history shows that this assumption is flawed. Nuclear disasters have repeatedly occurred, and they will almost certainly continue to occur.

The tendency to explain each nuclear disaster as an anomaly—an unusual case of operator error, irresponsible governance, poor engineering, or all of the above—only serves to reinforce the misguided faith that nuclear disasters can be entirely prevented.

This leads to the second goal of a forum on nuclear disaster compensation issues: deliberations must be participatory—that is, they must include the ordinary citizens who have been impacted or are likely to be impacted by a nuclear disaster, as well as nuclear engineers, medical doctors, environmental scientists, and other experts who have specialized knowledge relevant to disasters. We recognize, though, that participatory governance of science and technology faces challenges, especially as experience with participatory governance shows that not all groups are able or permitted to contribute equally. Citizens who participate in decision-making about nuclear power are often economically disadvantaged. They do not “choose” to accept the risks of living and working in proximity to nuclear power and nuclear waste disposal. While those who work in the industry are eager for the jobs and economic opportunities that nuclear power and waste disposal are seen to offer, others are often constrained by financial and historical circumstances. Even when these citizens “participate” in nuclear decision-making, for example as rate-payers, they are rarely on equal footing with governments and corporations. The experts who play an outsized role in framing problems and solutions instead give citizens simple yes-or-no votes in otherwise complicated processes.

A truly participatory forum would recognize the extremely broad group of people who are affected by nuclear disasters and enable them to help frame problems and solutions. Nuclear disasters affect not only the people living close to nuclear facilities, but also everyone in the path of the fallout, which can spread around the entire globe. It affects the costs and reliability of electricity for all persons on the electrical power grid. And it affects the livelihood of agricultural workers and the supply of food that they provide. A participatory forum would also ensure that all of these citizens understand what they might lose in a nuclear disaster. The impacts of previous disasters must be fully visible to those considering accepting such risks. We can begin to create a more participatory forum by broadening conceptions of expertise to include forms of knowledge that have historically been marginalized in decision-making about nuclear power. This includes local knowledges about natural and built environments as well as economic practices and interdisciplinary knowledge about disaster response and recovery.

This leads to the third goal of a conversation about nuclear disaster compensation: it must be transnational because nuclear disasters do not respect national borders. Although methods for participatory governance have proliferated in recent years, most of these experiences have been confined to single nations or localities.2 Nonetheless, there are models for a transnational forum.3 Nongovernmental organizations often gather alongside intergovernmental meetings on climate change. A transnational conversation should include decision-makers and citizens from nations that are considering investing in nuclear power. Such nations should explicitly consider the risks of nuclear disasters in their planning. The costs of disaster compensation may go beyond compensating citizens in the state where a catastrophe occurs. Large-scale nuclear disasters may also impact neighboring nation-states, others in the international community, and international environments, such as the high seas. Again, current international agreements strongly limit compensation and responsibility for disasters.

In sum, we are calling for a dialogue that is anticipatory, participatory, and transnational to best enable wiser decisions about nuclear power and its many consequences. We invite your ideas about possible forums that can move the conversation forward.

  • Yuki Ashina
  • M. X. Mitchell
  • Hirokazu Miyazaki
  • Annelise Riles
  • Sonja D. Schmid
  • Rebecca Slayton
  • Takao Suami
  • Satsuki Takahashi
  • Dai Yokomizo

  1. See ↩︎

  2. See, e.g., ; ; ; and ↩︎

  3. See for an articulation of a model of dialogue between experts and citizens.” ↩︎


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