Third party liability in the field of nuclear energy

The Nuclear Energy Liability Act of 18 March 1983 (NELA) contains specific provisions on liability for nuclear damage. Operators of nuclear facilities are liable without limit as to the amount for nuclear damage arising from the operation of their facilities or the related transport of nuclear material. For damage related to nuclear material in transit, the holder of the transport licence is liable. Nuclear damage is defined as death and injury as well as damage to property.

Under NELA, strict liability applies in cases of nuclear damage. The party concerned, i.e. the operator, is liable irrespective of whether they are at fault, even if, for example, the nuclear damage is caused by an extraordinary natural event, act of war, or terrorist attack. Strict liability is justified on the grounds that the operator of a nuclear facility is creating a risk and therefore should be held responsible for any consequences of the facility’s operations. A further principle of nuclear third party liability is the exclusive liability of the operator (known as channelling). Accordingly, the operator of a nuclear facility alone is liable to third parties. This makes it easier for victims to bring claims for damages, as they do not have to first establish who may potentially be held liable (sub-contractors, construction companies, etc.). In addition, NELA stipulates cover of CHF 1 billion plus 10% for interest and procedural costs (a total of CHF 1.1 billion). Nuclear facility operators must enter into a corresponding insurance contract with an insurance company licensed to do business in Switzerland. The Swiss Confederation provides insurance for certain risks that private insurance companies cannot or can only partly cover (e.g. extraordinary natural events, acts of war or terrorist attacks). The federal government charges the nuclear facility operator premiums for this insurance, which are then paid into the Federal Nuclear Damage Fund. The prescription period for filing a claim for damages is three years from when the claimant became aware of the damage. The right to claim damages extinguishes thirty years after the nuclear event, i.e. from this point in time, a claim can no longer be filed against the party liable. However, the Federal Nuclear Damage Fund will cover such long-term damage that remains unclaimed for or undetected.

Nuclear damage is therefore covered by insurance to the extent of CHF 1.1 billion. For losses in excess of this sum, the operator of a nuclear facility is liable without limitation with all its assets. If these assets are insufficient to cover the loss incurred, this is regarded as major damage. In such a case, the Federal Assembly can set up a compensation scheme and the Confederation can make further contributions towards the uncovered losses.

Switzerland has not acceded to any of the current international conventions on liability.

Switzerland has a bilateral agreement with Germany dating from 1986 on third-party liability in the field of nuclear energy, which provides for equal treatment for residents of both states.

Last modification 19.11.2019

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