WASHINGTON — The Senate on Friday approved a bill to raise the liability of nuclear power plant operators from $700 million to $7 billion to compensate victims in case of a Chernobyl-type catastrophe in the United States.
The measure, generally following the outlines of legislation approved by the House last July, also would increase government liability from $500 million to $7 billion in case of a radiation disaster at plants that manufacture nuclear weapons.
Congress would have to appropriate additional funds if the cost of compensating victims of radiation exceeded that sum.
Its backers said the bill would bring stability to the nuclear power industry and assure continued production of the nuclear warheads required to assure the nation's security. Opponents, however, charged that the measure failed to hold private operators responsible for assuring safe operation of power facilities and bomb-making plants.
The Senate narrowly rejected, 47 to 43, a proposal by Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) that would have created an independent board to review health and safety conditions at the aging nuclear weapons plants, where there recently have been charges of careless management practices.
Earlier, the Senate turned down a bid by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) to make operators of nuclear power plants more accountable for accidents if they were negligent in maintaining safe conditions. The roll-call vote was 53 to 41.
But the Senate adopted a provision to allow civil penalties of up to $100,000 a day for government contractors who violate safety rules and criminal penalties if the violations are knowing and willful.
Must Carry Insurance
Under the 1954 Price-Anderson Act, nuclear utilities must carry private insurance amounting to $160 million per reactor. If damages surpass this amount, each of the 112 licensed reactors has to contribute up to $5 million of the costs. The Senate, acting by voice vote, extended the 1954 act for another 20 years, while the version of the bill earlier approved by the House extended the provisions affecting nuclear plants for 10 years.
The legislation passed by the House and Senate, however, raises the required contribution from $5 million to $63 million after a major accident, with a limit of $10 million per year, and retains the requirement for private insurance.
In case of nuclear weapons plants operated under contract with the Energy Department, however, the government automatically would pay damages up to the $7-billion level. If damages exceeded this ceiling, the law provides that the President would submit a special plan to Congress to provide "full, equitable and efficient compensation for all valid claims."
Commission on Accidents
The Senate-passed measure also would require the President to establish a commission on catastrophic nuclear accidents to study ways to compensate the public for the worst type of disasters.
The Senate bill now will be sent to a conference committee to reconcile differences with the House bill. A final version will be submitted for approval by both houses and sent to the President for his signature.
The Reagan Administration strongly supported the bill, arguing that it was vital to the future of nuclear power in the United States and essential for national security.