04/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Excuse Me, But That Nuclear Plant Has Its Hand On Your Wallet

One way to think about an important choice you're about to make is to ask, "What's the worst thing that could happen?"

So let's say you're considering putting up a huge solar panel farm in the middle of Georgia. And I mean really huge, like 8 billion dollars huge. The biggest solar farm ever built. Big. Got it? And what's the worst thing you could imagine that could happen? A cloudy day? Rust? A tornado? A plane crashes into it?

Wow. All those things would be pretty bad, no kidding. But for a small amount of money that gigantic solar farm would be repaired, and would go right back to making cheap power.

Now let's think about putting that same 8 billion dollars into a subsidy for a new nuclear power plant in Georgia. Assuming the only steel mill in the world (in Japan) that can forge the containment vessel has the capacity, the reactor finally gets built fired up. After a couple of years there are concrete vats of spent nuclear fuel sitting around near the plant, several trillion gallons of water have been used to cool the plant, killing all life in those trillion gallons, and there's a hot nuclear core in the reactor making steam and turning turbines.

Now ask yourself the question. What's the worst thing that could happen? Plane crash, deliberate or accidental? Earthquake? Design flaw? Construction flaw? Operator error? What's the potential damage in dollars? How about $600 billion, according to the Sandia National Laboratory and reported by PublicCitizen.

That $600 billion potential liability would require some pretty amazing insurance policy, don't you think? You might even guess that insurance costs explain why those nuclear plants are so expensive to build and maintain. But you'd be wrong. The nuclear industry is required to maintain a little cooperative that covers up to 10.5 billion dollars of liability. That's it.

So let's summarize: The government gives 8 billion dollars to the Southern Company to build a nuclear power plant. In a worst case scenario, the plant blows up and causes $600 billion in damages. If they don't go bankrupt scraping together the money, the industry puts together their total liability of 10.5 billion dollars. So if you've got out your pad and pencil you might notice there's a bill for 589.5 billion dollars for the rest of the damage.

Guess who pays? Well, if you dig out your handy guide to the laws of the United States you'll find something called the Price-Anderson Act, a temporary measure passed in 1957 to help the nuclear industry get going. Atoms for Peace and all that. The Price-Anderson bill is the one that caps the nuclear industry's liability at 10.5 billion dollars and makes us (that'd be you) liable for the rest.

Without your gracious offer to cover the potential damage from every nuclear plant in the country, there wouldn't have been any nuclear plants in the first place. Imagine removing Price-Anderson. The nuclear industry would need to buy some real insurance and the cost of insurance gets included in the cost of a nuclear watt. Then we would see how the market forces treat the real cost of new nuclear plants. And guess what?

President Obama says we need to build some nuclear plants because otherwise we're going to be letting others get the technology edge in nuclear reactors. Uh, that happened a long time ago. Toshiba bought the energy part of Westinghouse and the big containment vessels are only made in Russia and Hokkaido, Japan.

So what does that 8 billion dollars really buy? A 600 billion dollar liability. And if that sounds good to you, how about a dozen?