By Peter N Henderson
TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada will make operators of nuclear power plants liable for the first C$1 billion ($980 million) of damages in the event of an accident, up from C$75 million under existing rules, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said on Monday.
Oliver also told a nuclear conference that Canada's Conservative government intends to increase the period during which compensation claims can be made after a disaster to 30 years from 10 years.
"In Canada, the fundamental principle of our environmental liability regime is polluter pay," he said, noting that the country's current rules on civil liability for power plant operators are almost 40 years old.
"Times and standards have changed significantly. The current law limits civil liability for the operator of a nuclear facility to $75 million. This is no longer acceptable."
Oliver said the legislation to enact the changes would bring Canada, which has never experienced a serious nuclear accident, into line with Britain, France, Spain and other European nations, which he said were adopting liability limits of C$900 million.
"Most importantly, it will continue to require that the liability of the operator be absolute and exclusive. This means there is no need to prove fault and no one else can be held liable," he said.
Statistics Canada data shows that nuclear power stations produced around 15 percent of all Canadian electricity in March. Canada has 19 working reactors, 18 of them in the populous central province of Ontario.
The Canadian Environmental Law Association said the C$1 billion cap is too low. Executive Director Theresa McClenaghan told Reuters the new legislation also makes no provision for third party liability, which means suppliers cannot be held accountable.
Oliver did not say when the government would introduce the legislation. The House of Commons will suspend work later this month for the annual summer break and legislators are not due back until September.
Oliver noted that "the likelihood of a serious incident in this country is exceedingly small".
All Canada's reactors are made by Candu Energy, a subsidiary of Canada's SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.
The new liability threshold is still tiny compared with the estimated clean-up costs from Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster, caused when a tsunami flooded a power station.
The Japan Center for Economic Research, a Tokyo-based think tank, has estimated that decontamination costs alone in the Fukushima residential area could reach as much as $600 billion, and there are also huge costs to decommission the reactors and compensate victims.
(Additional reporting and writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Janet Guttsman; and Peter Galloway)