The NRC and the Value of Life—Revisited

, co-director and senior scientist | December 11, 2014, 4:40 pm EDT
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In February 2011, my colleague Ed Lyman wrote a blog post and a letter to the New York Times pointing out that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) assigns a MUCH lower value to human life when assessing the costs of accidents than other government agencies. This issue has been raised again in a recent Bloomberg article.

In his New York Times letter, Ed explained it this way:

The N.R.C. has been using the same value—$3 million—since 1995. If the agency were to increase that value to the $5 million to $9 million per life that other agencies use, it would have a major effect on nuclear plant license renewals and new reactor approvals. Plant owners would have to add safety features that the N.R.C. now considers too expensive because it lowballs the value of the lives that could be saved.

N.R.C. calculations need to be brought in line with those of other agencies.

Why Does This Matter?

As Ed points out, this matters because the nuclear industry uses this figure to put a monetary value on loss of life from a possible nuclear accident. It then compares that cost to the cost of safety measures intended to prevent such an accident or reduce its consequences, to see if the safety measures are worth installing. Since the NRC allows the nuclear industry to use a value of life that is 2 to 3 times lower than other federal agencies, that lowers the calculated costs of accidents, which means fewer safety measures appear to be justified, and which means the industry doesn’t need to spend money on them.

The Fukushima disaster, which occurred a few weeks after Ed’s letter was published and is projected to result in several thousand eventual cancer deaths, made it apparent that resolving this discrepancy is not merely an abstract exercise. Yet the NRC has been studying this issue for at least the past three years without making any changes. The NRC staff is supposed to provide a recommendation for the NRC commissioners to consider by the end of this year.

The NRC is also debating whether it should give greater consideration to “qualitative factors” in cost-benefit analysis, such as the societal impacts of land contamination and evacuations. Currently when the NRC evaluates new reactor safety requirements, it considers only the direct monetary costs of such disasters—like the value of lives lost and condemned land, and the cost of decontamination—and ignores the social costs of a large population of permanently displaced people. Those factors are hard to quantify, but the NRC needs to find a way to take them into account.

Stay tuned.

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  • Richard Solomon

    Fukushima also gives some instructive info regarding those ‘qualitative factors’ in the impact of a nuclear accident. Eg, over 100,000 people are still living in temporary housing more than 3.5 years after the evacuations. Many are still there because they have been told that their homes and land will be decontaminated. So far, these efforts by the government have proved to be ineffective. How much longer will they continue to wait until they realize it is probably not going to happen in their lifetimes? How much has this temporary housing cost the taxpayer in Japan? How much productivity has been lost and will be lost in the years to come as these people are living in limbo?

    A number of people have committed suicide in reaction to the tragic losses of their homes and businesses after the events in March 2011. They were overwhelmed by the sense of hopelessness that all these losses imposed on them. What is ‘the value’ of these lives that have been lost?!?

    Will these ‘calculations,’ some of which are practically impossible to estimate, be part of the NRC’s upcoming analyses?

  • Joyce Agresta

    The Atomic Energy Commission in it’s day had a policy that in which a contaminated humans life was considered devalued. There was a wake I had attended for a Engineer who had a fatal exposure in the act of preventing a more serious accident. Of importance to his widow his sacrifice was certainly for the benefit of others. Because he was contaminated the settlement offer was initially lower than it would have been otherwise in other industries. The lawyers explained the commissions allowance for such events and further added her husband had willingly and knowingly made such a choice which didn’t not sit well with the widow He suffered and spoke well enough for some number of months before he would rest. The settlement offer eventually went up well beyond the determined value of the life. When the widow refused to take a dime from the “company that did this to her husband” the Nuclear community determined she was Mentally unstable “ who in there right mind wouldn’t accept such a large sum of money?
    Perhaps that particular case was complicated as the widow had taken notice and documented the rise of childhood leukemia surrounding the Nuclear reactors. The couple had begun making this public before the accident. Maybe his death was of more value than his life to the Nuclear industry. The rise in childhood leukemia was actually expected by the industry test had been dutifully preformed . The records permanently destroyed by the man at the Helm near the time the Commission took on a new name and face. Still much of the thinking and culture remains such as the devaluing of lives that have contaminated bodies. What does it matter you can’t take it with you and dead men don’t tell tales. Except for those who left behind “time Capsules”. This was a time and place when Nuclear Power Reactors where a vital part of our National security feeding the Peace Keepers. Currently they distract from the peacekeepers undermine and threaten national security.
    As we approach the end of the great Diablo Canyon experiment the thinking that a contaminated body is a devalued life may will be proven true and correct