Since the discovery of Uranium in the year 1789, there was considerable scientific deliberation into its nature and properties. In the year 1896 when the radioactive properties of Uranium were discovered by Henri Becquerel, a whole field of scientific study begun in the area of Nuclear Sciences.

With Ernest Rutherford’s observation that the splitting of Lithium atoms led to a significantly high release of energy, research on nuclear energy commenced. Fast-track research pertaining to harnessing nuclear energy then started in the backdrop of induced radioactivity and other  discoveries in the field of Nuclear and Quantum Sciences, i.e. the discovery of sub-atomic particles such as electron, proton etc. The theory of nuclear fission translated into a reality by late 1930s and the first nuclear reactor came up in Chicago in the year 1942. With the unfortunate bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the year 1945, the extent of the dissipation of nuclear energy was observed globally.

The evolution of Nuclear Laws can be examined in the light of the following factors:

  • Bombings in Japan.
  • Production of electricity through nuclear fission.
  • The Nuclear Armament Race.
  • Depletion of the fossil fuel reserves.
  • Nuclear Accidents and the need for Nuclear Waste Disposal.

The potential of Nuclear Energy was deeply explored globally, and electricity was first generated in the year 1951 at the Idaho reactor in the US. In the light of the depletion of the exhaustible natural fuels, and the non-feasibility of the renewable resources, nuclear energy was touted as a viable substitute to cater to the exponentially growing population of the world.

The commercial production of electricity by harnessing nuclear energy was debated extensively in the 1950s mostly in light of the WW-II bombings of Japan. The world feared that normalization of nuclear-reactors would lead to a larger threat of Armageddon or a global wipeout of humanity. 

Nuclear laws began to govern the various aspects of nuclear energy aiming to strike a balance between the promotions of nuclear energy, and preventing the misuse of nuclear energy in form of weapons of mass destruction. The legal regime in the US began extensive de-classification of the documents pertaining to its nuclear programme to the civilian community with the Atomic Energy Act, 1954, which provided for both military and civil use of nuclear energy. 

A domestic attempt by a sovereign nation (United States) was viewed as a rather small step in the direction of global peace, and international co-operation pertaining to information sharing and material supply was touted as a solution to end the hostilities among the sovereigns globally.   

1955 saw the first initiative on a global scale being taken up as the, International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, Geneva. Representations from 73 nations tallying more than 1400 delegates and over 1000 paper-presentations marked the conference as a landmark event.

In the aftermath of the conference, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) came into being in the year 1957 with the adoption of the Statute of International Atomic Energy Agency at an International Conference in New York in 1956.

The Principles laid down in the Statute of IAEA helps one to summarize the global take on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, these principles provided for the following:

The principle for international cooperation was subjected to the adherence of the member nations to the rest of the principles. A significant consideration was non-proliferation by the member states. A quid pro quo arrangement was adopted by the IAEA, which promised cooperation in terms of research and development in the field of nuclear energy in exchange of non-acquisition of nuclear weapons.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Europe (OECD, then OEEC) followed the lead of the IAEA and established a regional European Nuclear Energy Agency in 1958.  Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands came together to realize the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) which came up in 1958 and, in greater public interest, monopolized the ownership, import and production of fissionable material among the members to instill a sense of security and accountability among them. The various agencies led to the following remarkable developments in the field of nuclear laws:

The international regime has witnessed a change in its approach pertaining to nuclear laws, significant changes including mandatory disclosures on the packaging, isolation of radioactive substances, safeguards against misuse of nuclear material among other measures have been taken by the agencies to answer to the threats posed due to the nuclear substances.

In the light of the large scale environmental degradation that follows nuclear accidents, the principle of absolute liability has been extended to nuclear facilities. Environmental Impact Assessments, mandatory insurances and indemnities by the government are being followed internationally.

The issue of Nuclear Waste disposal has been addressed differently by different nations, while certain nations such as the United States have strictly adhered to the policy of isolation of nuclear waste rich in reactor grade plutonium, other nations such as France, Canada and India have attempted to reuse the same as Mixed Oxide Fuels. Technologies such as Integral Fast reactors have been developed to minimize the generation of radio-active waste.

However, a homogenous global solution to the menace of nuclear waste still has not been achieved, and the same poses a great threat to the ecology of the containment facilities where the waste is stored or treated. There is a greater need for international co-operation to deal with the same.

Further, International Cooperation is very crucial pertaining to Nuclear Laws as, it is a rapidly developing promising field of Energy law which concerns a great number of nations. The Nuclear industry warrants a dynamic legal regime as the industry itself is very dynamic.

This article has been authored by Anurag Shankar Prasad.