IAEA holds its first international conference on nuclear law 

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The world’s leading experts on nuclear law gathered in Vienna to take part in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) First International Conference on Nuclear Law: The Global Debate held during April 25-29, 2022. According to the IAEA, more than 900 lawyers, representatives of national authorities, international organizations, the nuclear industry and civil society from 127 countries came together to discuss emerging issues and trends in nuclear law and the applicable legal frameworks. 

The IAEA said the scope of the conference was to examine the current nuclear law framework in the context of the “changing landscape of technology, opportunities and challenges – and chart a vision for the future.” Nuclear law underpins all the peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology in the form of international treaties on the safety and security of nuclear power plants (NPPs), agreements enabling the verification of nations’ nuclear non-proliferation commitments, provisions enabling emergency preparedness and response, and those addressing questions of compensation and civil liability for nuclear damage. 

In his opening remarks, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said the global debate on nuclear law is about whether “the conventions we have, the treaties we have, and the standards we have, continue or need to be adjusted.” Nuclear law is “not only about behaviour and abiding by very important concepts and principles of law, but also driven by technological development”, he added.   

As depositary of the international legal instruments on safety, security, safeguards and civil liability for nuclear damage, the IAEA is at the heart of the nuclear legal framework and plays a multi-faceted role in the development and implementation of nuclear law.  Ensuring that humanity can reap the benefits of nuclear technology while minimizing the risks has been the founding principle of the nuclear legal framework. 

“Developing nuclear legislation is an essential step that sets the framework for the conduct of all activities in the nuclear and radiation sectors while at the same time ensuring adequate protection of people and the environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation”, the United Arab Emirates’ Permanent Representative to the IAEA, Hamad Al Kaabi, said at the opening session which had as its theme the importance of international legal instruments, standards and norms to maintain public trust on nuclear technology. 

“International nuclear legal framework, including standard and guidance, needs to be improved to meet challenges posed by advanced nuclear technologies such as regulatory issues for SMRs (small modular reactors), with the aim to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy”, the China Atomic Energy Authority Vice Chairman Dong Baotong said at the opening session. 

In line with the aim of the conference to raise awareness of nuclear law, as well as increase accessibility and inclusivity, the IAEA has published its first e-book by global thought leaders on nuclear law, providing free access to a compilation of essays on this crucial subject. The e-book titled “Nuclear Law: The Global Debate”, with articles by leading scholars, policymakers and scientists in the field, echoes the conference tagline and is available for download free of charge. 

The IAEA Director General writes in the introductory chapter of the e-book that in view of the challenges that continue to confront humanity, including food security, health care and management of water resources, together with the need for a cleaner and safer environment, “legal frameworks enable the use of nuclear technology to address these critical issues.”    

“Just as IAEA inspections make sure nuclear material is not misused to make weapons, or its scientists support Member States in using nuclear science and technology in medicine, agriculture, and the fight against plastic pollution and zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, nuclear law and those who shape it provide the indispensable normative framework to sustain the whole effort”, he said. 

The conference included various technical sessions with focus on topics like emerging nuclear security threats, national experiences implementing civil liability for nuclear damage, management and decommissioning of nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons free zones, fusion technology and nuclear applications in outer space. A special session was dedicated to the history of various codes of conduct adopted under the IAEA auspices, including those on the safety and security of radioactive sources, as well as any emerging issues in the area. 

In this connection, Nuclear Asia spoke to the former Chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Anil Kakodkar, regarding the country’s civil nuclear liability law enacted in 2010, which initially created apprehensions among suppliers of equipment.  

Subsequently, the Indian government set up a Rs 1,500-crore (over $200 million) nuclear insurance pool that was put in place in June 2015. The pool is administered by the state-run General Insurance Corporation and other insurance companies. It provides insurance coverage to operators and suppliers for any nuclear liability towards the third party under the country’s Civil Liability of Nuclear Damage Act, 2010.   

Kakodkar explained that the international frameworks for compensation and civil liability have evolved in order to facilitate nuclear projects, whereby industry and governments could come together and cooperate to compensate people in case of accidents. 

“Till the 1990s, the Indian programme was essentially domestic, but, thereafter, we embarked on cooperation with Russia for the Kudankulam nuclear project, and later we started negotiating for civil nuclear cooperation in order to end our long isolation from international commerce”,  Kakodkar said referring to the embargo on India’s nuclear trade following its underground detonation of a nuclear device in 1974.  

“So, when it became clear that we would be rejoining the international nuclear commerce, it became necessary that we also enact a law for compensation and civil liability that was compatible with international law. We, therefore, formed a committee to study the international laws in this regard”, he added.  

Kakodkar said that while the philosophy underlying international law is to soften the burden of compensation on the industry and companies in case of accident, the Indian law keeps the focus on protection of the affected population and makes industry more responsible in this regard.  

“In the draft of the law, certain amendments were made regarding the liability of suppliers, which made vendors nervous about entering into supply agreements with the state-run operator Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL)”, he said.  

“Our civil nuclear liability act, however, is fully compatible with international law, and subsequent clarifications issued by the government have helped to reassure the vendors”, he added. 

Kakodkar said that the doubt among vendors arose from the liability law clause that NPCIL as the operator would have recourse to suppliers of equipment for damage in case of an accident.  

However, in the Indian scenario NPCIL acts both as operator and supplier. For instance, it furnishes the design according to which the vendor is supplying the equipment, which would mean that in case of an accident, NPCIL would have to take recourse against itself, Kakodkar explained. 

The issue has been now fully resolved with the setting up of the nuclear insurance pool and the supplier can get protected against his liability by taking up the insurance cover, he added.