Why Is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Undervaluing American Lives? via The Huffington Post

How much is your life worth?

That’s a key, but controversial, question for the federal government. Although it might seem distasteful to put a monetary value on a life, when federal agencies consider adopting new health and safety rules — or strengthening old ones — they often do just that and weigh the proposed rule’s costs against its lifesaving benefits. The lower value they give to a life, the easier it is for them to reject a proposed safety measure as too costly.

Agencies determine what’s called the “value of a statistical life” (VSL) based on a variety of economic and labor market studies that indicate what people are willing to pay to avoid certain risks or how much more employers pay workers to do a riskier job. For the most part, VSLs across agencies are in the same ballpark. For example, when estimating the benefits of a highway safety standard, the Department of Transportation calculates the value of a human life at $9.1 million. When the Environmental Protection Agency proposed strengthening the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter last year, it pegged the VSL at $9.6 million. And when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration finalized its hazard communication rule in 2012, it used a value of $8.7 million.

Virtually all agencies periodically increase the VSL to reflect inflation and other factors. I say “virtually” all, because at least one agency — the one responsible for ensuring the safety of commercial nuclear power plants — is way behind the times. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has been using the same value — $3 million — for the past two decades. That’s two to three times lower than other agencies’ calculations.


“If the NRC increased that value to what other federal agencies use — and made other long-overdue changes to the way it calculates the benefits of regulations — it would have a major impact on nuclear plant license renewals and new reactor approvals,” said Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Plant owners would have to add safety features that the NRC now considers to be too expensive because the agency lowballs the value of the lives that would be saved.”

As it turns out, the NRC has been reconsidering its VSL formulation since August 2012, and the agency’s staff is expected to soon recommend tripling the VSL to $9 million and tying it to the inflation rate going forward. Once that recommendation is officially proposed, which could happen any day now, the agency will open up a public comment period.

Undoubtedly, the nuclear power industry will object. It routinely complains about costly rules it finds burdensome.

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