Your Life Is Worth $6 Million Less in a Nuclear Meltdown

If you wrap your new car around a tree beside the interstate, the U.S. government values your life at $9 million. If you’re at risk from a nuclear accident, you’re priced at just $3 million.

Those are the figures the U.S. Transportation Department and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission use when considering safety upgrades for highways or nuclear power plants. Their methods compare the cost of improvements with the number of lives potentially saved. The gap between the value they give to each life shows the scale of the task facing officials trying to broker a deal to improve nuclear safety around the world.

The NRC has been reviewing its statistical model since August 2012 as the European Union heaps pressure on the U.S. to agree to tighter regulations on reactor safety. The theoretical value of a human life is a key part of the U.S. rulebook, which effectively caps how much money power companies can be forced to spend on safety upgrades.

“Using this low value has a significant effect on nuclear plant license renewals and new reactor approvals,” said Ed Lyman, a Washington-based physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Nuclear plants are not required to add safety systems that the NRC deems too expensive for the value of the lives they could save.”

The U.S. was left as the main dissenter in negotiations over tighter international rules on nuclear safety this month as Russia scaled back its opposition to plans intended to avoid a repeat of Japan’s 2011 nuclear-plant meltdown at Fukishima.

The NRC hasn’t determined whether to revise the figure, spokesman Scott Burnell said in an e-mailed reply to questions.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

The NRC’s lower value on American lives means that regulators have struggled to force nuclear operators to invest in safety infrastructure at plants under license. The U.S. is against a proposed European amendment to the Convention on Nuclear Safety forcing regulators to show how they’re improving safety and mitigating against accidents.

“The nuclear industry complained about the number of changes they had to make,” former NRC commissioner Victor Gilinsky said in an e-mail response to questions. Rules now require “a cost-benefit analysis to justify any NRC action,” he said.

A higher value placed on human lives, like the one the Department of Transportation uses, could change NRC risk assessments, which consider the consequences of a potential accident along with their probabilities, said Lyman. A Department of Transportation public-information official declined to comment on the disparity.

Industry Response

“The NRC does focus on the quantitative factors in reaching many of these decisions,” Chairman Allison Macfarlane said in Dec. 3 Senate testimony. “Some of the quantitative factors that are considered are themselves not necessarily fully quantitative like the price of -- the cost of a human life.”

The U.S. Nuclear Energy Institute, the Washington-based advocacy group promoting more atomic power, has criticized regulators for imposing onerous requirements.

“Resources are being spent complying with requirements that have little or no safety benefit,” said NEI senior vice president Anthony Pietrangelo at the same Dec. 3 hearing. “If the NRC more accurately estimated the cost of its regulatory requirements it would find that many of its requirements do not pass a simple cost-benefit test.”

While U.S. nuclear operators have set up regional emergency-response centers and invested in safety equipment, their French counterparts are spending four times more, according to industry estimates.

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