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Insurance companies aren't the obvious saviours of the planet, but according to Barbara Panvel, they've got a larger role than you might think in shaping our shared future.

Who might well have the last word on the development of what many see as 'undesirables' - nuclear power stations, GM crops, fluoridating the water supply and building on flood plains?

Government? Environmental NGOs? Some unelected world body: the UN, World Bank, WTO or those for whom the McKinsey consultancy works?

No: the power hampering these developments is the insurance/reinsurance industry.

Under Europe’s Paris Convention, insurance is now required to cover the various risks of environmental damage caused by nuclear power station operators. Fiona Reilly of Norton Rose – a leading international legal practice – said in January that insurance is unlikely to be able to cover these risks and that without such cover operators may be reluctant to build new nuclear power stations.

The top five farming underwriters won’t risk insuring farmers against accidental contamination with GM crops. Insurance firms fear a public health disaster and huge compensation payouts.

They have compared the use of GM crops to the use of thalidomide which led to £100 million in payouts to babies born with deformities in the Sixties.

One broker added: "Fifty years ago they were writing policies for asbestos without a care in the world. Now they are faced with bills of hundreds of millions. There is a feeling that GM could come back and bite you in five years time."

Early this month the British health minister renewed attempts to extend fluoridation - six months after scientific evidence in America that fluoridation has serious health risks caused more than 600 dentists, physicians, scientists and environmentalists to urge Congress to stop water fluoridation.

They cited research findings that fluoride is affecting the thyroid gland and epidemiological studies linking fluoride and bone cancer.

When Yorkshire Water was told to add fluoride to its water, it cleverly applied for indemnity from prosecution for all matters arising from fluoridation – overdoses caused by accident or sabotage & risks to those handling the fluoride. The government was unable to provide sufficient insurance to cover these risks . . .

Shrewd insurers will not bankrupt themselves by giving cover to any enterprise which is too dangerous – the building of new houses on flood plains for instance. If government steps in to offer insurance that means the taxpayer will be underwriting unwise political decisions and giving open cheques to cover any calamities in these sectors.

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