Nuclear law
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Sound national and international legal frameworks are essential to the safe and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Nuclear law covers all aspects of nuclear energy and more specifically its four most important areas: safety, security, safeguards and liability.

Beginning in the 1920s and continuing through to the 1950s, international nuclear energy organisations began to emerge with an initial focus on radiological protection frameworks. In the 1960s, nuclear law began to develop in earnest with a focus on nuclear non-proliferation (including nuclear weapons free zones) and nuclear third party liability regimes. During the 1970s, when the major nuclear programmes were continuing their fast development in Europe, Japan and North America, the focus remained on non‑proliferation with the need to regulate nuclear trade. The lessons learnt from the 1979 Three Mile Island and 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accidents,   helped drive efforts to enhance the international legal framework. As a result, a series of international conventions were adopted in the 1980-1990s in the following fields:

  • emergency management,
  • nuclear safety,
  • safety of spent fuel and radioactive waste management,
  • physical protection,
  • environmental protection and
  • public participation.

At the same time, nuclear liability regimes were modernised. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States, the international community concentrated on enhancing nuclear security and the legal framework against terrorism. The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan was a wakeup call that urged countries to ratify all relevant conventions in the field of nuclear law, if not already done, and ensure that all conventions were duly implemented in national legislation.

As part of its activities, the NEA maintains information on the multilateral agreements in nuclear energy, which includes relevant articles published in the Nuclear Law Bulletin.

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NEA work on this topic

As part of its programme of work, the NEA Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) supports the Nuclear Law Committee (NLC)  in working to help ensure sound national and international legal regimes required for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, including in the field of liability and compensation for nuclear damage, nuclear safety, international trade in nuclear materials and equipment, as well as public engagement.

Achieving confidence in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy requires the existence of comprehensive and effective legal regimes whose goals are to protect the public and the natural environment from the risks inherent in those activities. These regimes include regulation at a national level, co-operation at bilateral and multilateral levels and international harmonisation of national policies and legislation through adherence to international conventions. They need to be strong enough to set and enforce limits, and flexible enough to keep pace with technological advances and changing public concerns.

To achieve this goal, the OLC:

  • assists member countries in the development, strengthening and harmonisation of nuclear legislation and regulation in areas such as nuclear safety, radioactive waste management and environmental law (as applied to nuclear activities) based upon internationally accepted principles and in line with international binding instruments for the safe and peaceful use of nuclear energy;
  • contributes to the modernisation of the international nuclear liability regimes and encourages the strengthening of treaty relations between interested countries to address liability and compensation for nuclear damage; and
  • collects, analyses and disseminates information on nuclear law generally and on topical nuclear legal issues in particular.

For more information on NEA activity on nuclear law, please consult the Office of Legal Counsel programme of work.