The nuclear accident in Fukushima: still a long way to go

Nearly two months after the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in North-Eastern Japan, the situation remains critical. The radioactive leaks continue to pollute the atmosphere around the plant which was damaged by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Fukushima: A 7-level major nuclear accident

Fukushima nuclear accidentLeaks are now highly radioactive, including iodine 131 and cesium 137. The severity level is increased from 5 to 7, that is, the maximum level with reference to the nuclear and radiological events of INES (International Nuclear Event Scale). This level has so far been attributed only to the Chernobyl catastrophe.

We may already note:

  • the evacuation of nearly 200 000 people,
  • the extension of the exclusion zone from 20 to 30 km around the plant and the establishment of an area closed to people over a radius of 20km,
  • a high contamination of sea level near the Fukushima nuclear plant,
  • an alarming increase in the level of radioactivity within the buildings housing the reactors 1 and 3,
  • a long-lasting pollution with a large release of radioactive material having serious effects on health and environment,
  • the contamination of foodstuffs and drinking water for years.

The seven levels of severity of nuclear accidents according to the international INES scale

1Operating anomaly
  • No consequence on the site
  • No off-site consequence
  • Contamination of on-site staff
3Serious incident
  • Very low off-site releases
  • Contamination of on-site staff with effects on health
  • Local consequences: minor off-site release of radioactive materials
  • Wider consequences: limited offsite release of radioactive materials
6Serious accident
  • Significant off-site release of radioactive materials
7Major accident
  • Major release of radioactive materials with widespread health and environmental effects

International Nuclear Event Scale (INES)

International Nuclear Event Scale INES Source: INES

Fukushima nuclear accident: The on-going crisis

TEPCO, the power company owning the Fukushima nuclear plant, announced in mid-April 2011 that it would not be able to regain control of the reactors before nine months. It would need no less than three months to lower the level of radioactivity and between three and six months to cool the reactors.

Fukushima accident Supply of the power plant with fresh water after the catastrophe

Only then will the task of dismantling and cleanup of the four reactors out of the six commence at the Fukushima Daiichi (reactors 5 and 6, spared by the disaster, could be retained).

These operations will last for decades and may extend up to 100 years according to British experts.

Fukushima accident: Nuclear risk management

Given the specificity of the nuclear accident, its disproportionate impact, and the lack of modeling in this area, risk management shall stand as a serious challenge. The regulations in force along with international conventions are so far the only framework whereby the nuclear industry is being governed.

  • The Paris Convention

The Paris Convention on third party liability in the field of nuclear energy was enacted in 1960 and amended in 1964 and 1982. It consists primarily of countries of Western Europe: Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Netherlands, Portugal, United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.

Supplemented in 1963 by the Brussels Convention, the Treaty of Paris provides a compensation scheme in three stages. Prime responsibility falls upon the shoulders of the plant operator, then comes the State which intervenes in the second stage to participate in compensation. Finally, it is the countries signatories of the Brussels Convention which will be involved.

  • The Vienna Convention

Adopted three years after the Paris Convention, the Vienna Convention on civil liability for nuclear damage came into force only 14 years later in 1977. It was designed to address these issues internationally.

Despite its larger scope, it comprised only 11 states in the late 1980s. Its revision in 1997 has allowed the increase of its compensation ceiling, the broadening its scope of coverage and the adoption of the convention on supplementary compensation for nuclear damage. According to this convention, the sums allocated for compensation amount to 262 million USD.

In 1988, the adoption of the Joint Protocol pertaining to the application of the Vienna Convention and the one of Paris, which entered into force in 1992, allowed the extension of the geographical scope of the international plan of nuclear liability.

  • The operator’s third party liability
nuclear accidentZone de sécurité à Fukushima

The Paris Convention and that of Vienna establish the liability of operators of nuclear power for all damage to property and persons in the event of an accident. Operators are required to underwrite a third party liability insurance to cover nuclear risk.

For damage to property, each country applies the local legislation in force. In general, operators are not required to underwrite policies covering damage to their facilities.

Currently the limit of third party liability coverage for operators is set at 132 million USD. Under review, the Paris Convention will raise this ceiling to 1 billion USD to ensure a fair and adequate compensation to victims.

The total amount of compensation provided by the revision of the Brussels Convention will amount to 2.1 billion USD.

The extension of the period of coverage from 10 to 30 years for bodily injuries caused to third parties and the integration of the cost of environmental degradation are also under study.

Maximum amount supported by the operator in third party liability

CountryAmount in millions USD
3 641
1 456
1 019

Source: OCDE

Reinsurance pools: mechanisms better suited to risks of nuclear accidents

While the probability of the occurrence of a serious nuclear accident is low, its cost remains too high to be borne by a single insurer. Capacity would be seriously inadequate. In addition, liability and compensation plans established by the Paris and Vienna conventions have shown loopholes pertaining to indemnification ceilings and amounts, not to mention that many countries have not adhered to these conventions.

To ensure higher amounts of compensation, insurers from countries that have developed a nuclear activity, have merged into reinsurance pools. There are currently more than twenty pools throughout the world. Like French Assuratome, there are similar structures in Germany, China, USA, Spain, Japan, Switzerland, and United Kingdom. Amounts of the guarantees offered vary from one pool to another.

Nuclear risks: The ten main pools

in millions USD
CountryPool nameCapacity
Japan Atomic Energy Insurance Pool (JAEIP)1 060
Pool Suisse d'Assurance contre les Risques Nucléaires891
United Kingdom
Nuclear Risk Insurers Limited (NRI)751
Deutsche Kernreaktor Versicherungsgemeinschaft (DKVG)725
China Nuclear Insurance Pool (CNIP)482
Sweden and Finland
Nordic Nuclear Insurers (NNI)263
United States
American Nuclear Insurers (ANI)154
Syndicat Belge d'Assurance Nucléaire (SYBAN)139
Aseguradores de Riesgos Nucleares a.i.e. (Espanuclear)113
Source: Assuratome

Nuclear risk mutuals

Nuclear riskIn recent years, other structures have emerged: mutual insurance associations: Elini (European Liability Insurance for the Nuclear Industry) for third party liability and Emani (European Mutual Association for Nuclear Insurance) for property damage insurance.

Being direct competitors of reinsurance pools, these mutuals have been set up by the European nuclear industry in order to lower insurance premiums. A similar arrangement also exists in the United States with NEIL (Nuclear Electric Insurance Limited).

Nuclear energy worldwide

In 2018, a total of 450 nuclear power plant operating in 31 countries was registered. They produce approximately 11% of the global electricity.

In addition, 55 nuclear power plants are under construction worldwide and 120 in project, including 34 in Asia.

With 98 nuclear power plant, the United States stands as the most “nuclearized” country in the world, followed by France with 58 nuclear power plant and 1 100 sites where nuclear activities are carried out. China ranks third with 45 nuclear power plant.

Number of operating nuclear plants and reactors in 2018

CountryNumber of plantsPower in MWShare of the nuclear power
in the electricity production
Reinsurance pools
United States
9899 06119%American Nuclear Insurers (ANI)
5863 13072%ASSURATOME
4542 8384%China Nuclear Insurance Pool
3936 9746%The Japan Atomic Energy Insurance Pool
3627 25218%Russian Nuclear Insurance Pool
South Korea
2422 44524%The Korea Atomic Energy Insurance Pool
226 2553%-
1913 55415%Nuclear Insurance Association of Canada
United Kingdom
158 92318%Nuclear Risk Insurers Limited
1513 10753%Ukrainian Nuclear Insurance Pool
88 62940%Swedish Atomic Insurance Pool
75 91839%Syndicat Belge d'Assurance Nucléaire (SYBAN)
79 51512%Deutsche Kernreaktor Versicherungsgemeinschaft
77 12120%Espanuclear
Czech republic
63 93235%The Czech Nuclear Insurance Pool Office
51 3187%-
53 33336%Schweizer Pool fur die Versicherung von Nuklearrisiken
54 44811%Nuclear Energy Insurance Pool of the Republic of China (N.E.I.P.R.O.C.)
42 74932%Finnish Atomic Insurance Pool
41 81455%Slovak Nuclear Insurance Pool
41 90251%Hungarian Nuclear Insurance Pool
31 6335%-
21 8843%Coordenacao de Riscos de Energia
21 96635%Energy Ins. Co. Ltd.
21 5525%Atomic Mexican Pool
21 30017%Romanian Pool for the Insurance of Atomic Risks
South Africa
21 8605%The South African Pool for the Insurance of Nuclear Risks
14823%BV Bureau van de Nederlandse Pool voor Verzekering van Atoomrisico's

Fukushima, amongst the most serious nuclear accidents ever

In sixty years, the nuclear industry has had six accidents of level 5 severity and above. The three most serious disasters are:

  • Three Mile Island (1979). taking place in the United States following a series of human and technical failures, the accident cost the global insurance market 1 billion USD.
  • nuclearThernobyl (1986) twenty-five years after the explosion of a reactor at the Chernobyl plant, Ukraine is still reeling from its fallout. A perimeter of 30 km around the plant is totally prohibited. In addition, the entire region will remain contaminated for an additional 1000 years. So far no final toll is established for this drama. Belarus believes that the costs pertaining to the relocation of residents, closure of the contaminated site and the medical damages could reach 235 billion USD. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has estimated costs at hundreds of billions of dollars, while Greenpeace came up with the colossal figure of 1 trillion USD.
  • Fukushima N°1 (2011) four reactors are so far out of control, an accurate estimate of damages would take years.

In 2011, the Japanese government estimated the cost of insured losses caused by the Fukushima nuclear accident at 74 billion USD. In 2013, the latter was revised upwards to reach 104.5 billion USD.

In 2016, the Japanese government estimated the cost of compensation for the victims of the disaster and the dismantling of reactors at 176 billion USD.

The Fukushima accident: Should nuclear energy be maintained or given up?

Regarded as the most serious accident since Chernobyl, the nuclear Fukushima catastrophe has reignited the debate about security in nuclear plants.

Hence, about thirty reactors may be closed around the world, especially the older or those located on a seismic zone. A slowdown in the growth of this energy is also expected.

Restrictive measures have already been taken in more than one country:

  • In Europe, 143 reactors are subjected to safety tests.
  • Germany has announced the discontinuation of the 7 oldest reactors of its fleet, expressing its wish to phase out nuclear power "as soon as possible."
  • Italy, the only G8 country not to have nuclear power plants in operation on its territory since the Chernobyl accident, has given up its nuclear program. An investment of 29 billion USD was initially planned to build eight reactors.
  • In the United States, the electrician NRG has given up a project to build two reactors in Southern Texas. This leaves only 7 reactor projects in the country. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) launched, for its part, a thorough review of the safety of the American reactors.
  • Switzerland, South Korea, India and China, meanwhile, decided to reconsider their plan to develop nuclear power plants.

Other countries will continue their nuclear program such as:

  • nuclear plantRussia, where five new plants are under construction. Today, over 17% of the electricity produced in Russia comes from nuclear power plants. The authorities' objective is to double that figure.
  • Japan, where the regulator has announced it will pursue its nuclear program in the archipelago.
  • Both France and Britain have explicitly said they will not abandon nuclear energy.
  • Ukraine has not abandoned nuclear energy and is still operating four plants. The Chernobyl plant continued to operate until 2000.
  • Poland where reactors of its first nuclear power plant will be operational in 2020. Two additional plants would be built by 2030.

The most serious nuclear accidents worldwide

Name of the plantDateCountryLevel of severityConsequences
Chalk River
December 1952Canada5NA
September 1957Russia6200 deaths, 500 000 people irradiated
& 10 000 others evacuated
October 1957Great Britain5NA
Saint-Laurent-des Eaux
October 1969France4NA
Three Mile Island
March 1979USA5140 000 evacuated people
August 1979USA-A thousand people irradiated
Saint-Laurent-des Eaux
March 1980France4NA
January-March 1981Japan-278 people irradiated
April 1986Ukraine74 000 deaths*
October 1989Spain3NA
April 1993Russia-NA
September 1999Japan4600 people irradiated and 320 000 others evacuated
August 2004Japan-Death of 5 employees
July 2008France1A hundred people contaminated
Fukushima N°1
March 2011Japan7200 000 people evacuated

* UNO’s toll of 2005
NA: Non available

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