For more than a quarter century, public discourse has pushed the nuclear-power industry in the direction of heavier regulation and greater scrutiny, effectively halting construction of new reactors. By focusing on contemporary fear of significant accidents, such discourse begs the question of what the nation's court system would actually do should a major nuclear incident cause radiation-induced cancers.
Congress's attempt to answer that question is the Price-Anderson Act, a broad statute addressing claims by the victims of a major nuclear accident. Lower courts interpreting the Act have repeatedly encountered a major stumbling block: it declares that judges must apply the antediluvian preponderance-of-the-evidence logic of state tort law, even though radiation science insists that the causes of radiation-induced cancers are more complex. After a major nuclear accident, the Act's paradoxically outdated rules for adjudicating "causation" would make post-incident compensation unworkable.
This Note urges that nuclear-power-plant liability should not turn on eighteenth-century tort law. Drawing on modern scientific conclusions regarding the invariably "statistical" nature of cancer, this Note suggests a unitary federal standard for the Price-Anderson Act—that a defendant be deemed to have "caused" a plaintiff's injury in direct proportion to the increased risk of harm the defendant has imposed. This "proportional liability" rule would not only fairly evaluate the costs borne by injured plaintiffs and protect a reawakening nuclear industry from the prospect of bank-breaking litigation, but would prove workable with only minor changes to the Price-Anderson Act's standards of "injury" and "fault."
William D. O’Connell,
Causation’s Nuclear Future: Applying Proportional Liability to the Price-Anderson Act,
64 Duke Law Journal
Available at: https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/dlj/vol64/iss2/4