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International Community to Forge Vision for Future of Nuclear Law at First-Ever IAEA Conference


The world’s top experts in nuclear law are meeting at IAEA headquarters this week to examine the current nuclear law framework in the changing landscape of technology, opportunities and challenges – and chart a vision for the future.

More than 900 lawyers, representatives of national authorities, international organizations, nuclear industry and civil society from 127 countries are participating at the IAEA’s First International Conference on Nuclear Law: The Global Debate (ICNL) to discuss emerging issues and trends in nuclear law and the applicable legal frameworks.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the IAEA, remarked in his opening speech that 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 that “nuclear energy a force for the greater good and at the same time poses … challenges that must be solved.” Setting the scene for the conference, Grossi posed that the global debate is about whether “the conventions we have, the treaties we have, and the standards we have continue or need to be adjusted.”

Nuclear law permeates the entire nuclear sector: in the form of international treaties on the safety and security of nuclear power plants, 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 – nuclear law underpins all the peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology.

High-level panel

The high-level opening session of the conference featured a moderated discussion on the importance of international legal instruments, standards and norms to maintain public trust at a time when nuclear science and technology offer great promises, while some fear nuclear energy.

“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,” said Hamad AlKaabi, Permanent Representative of the United Arab Emirates to the IAEA.

Ensuring that the world can reap the benefits of nuclear technology while minimizing the risks has been the founding principle of the nuclear legal framework. Within the four main branches of international nuclear law – safety, security, safeguards, and civil liability for nuclear damage –instruments, norms and standards aim to curb associated risks.

“The existing global nuclear security-related legal regime is already properly designed to facilitate benefits, but only if states fully integrate and implement such requirements at a national level,” stated Bonnie Jenkins, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security from the United States, speaking of the deployment of emerging advanced reactor technologies to ensure energy security and mitigate climate change.

As nuclear science evolves and new peaceful applications emerge, inspired by innovation and the need to meet emerging challenges, nuclear law must evolve with them.

“Innovative development of nuclear science and technology is creating infinite possibilities to deliver greater benefits to humanity,” said Baotong Dong, Vice Chairman of the China Atomic Energy Authority. “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, with the aim to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

Throughout the week, participants will discuss trends in the four main branches of nuclear law as well as nuclear new build, and advanced reactors. They will also attend technical sessions with focus on topics including emerging nuclear security threats, national experiences implementing civil liability for nuclear damage, management and decommissioning of nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons free zones, fusion and nuclear applications in outer space. Participants will explore cross-cutting issues, including social involvement and transparency, climate change as well as the role of nuclear law in other areas of law at five roundtable discussions. A special session is dedicated to the history of various codes of conduct under, adopted under the IAEA auspices, including on those on the safety and security of radioactive sources, as well as any emerging issues in the area.

Making Nuclear Law Inclusive

Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA Director-General, delivers his opening remarks at the First International Conference on Nuclear Law: The Global Debate, held at the Agency headquarters in Vienna, Austria. 25 April 2022 (Photo: Dean Calma / IAEA)

As the IAEA’s first international conference on nuclear law the event aims to raise awareness of nuclear law and increase accessibility and inclusivity. In that spirit, the IAEA has collaborated with thought leaders from around the world to publish a collection of essays on the key issues in nuclear law and to formulate a vision for the future. The Nuclear Law: Global Debate, echoes the conference tagline and is available for download free of charge.

“Every download of the book widens nuclear law’s audience; and that in turn allows for better decisions to be made, ones that include the contributions of a large set of [informed] stakeholders,” said Mr Grossi. “This book  will contribute to an improved understanding of the legal framework and the development of a widely shared joint vision.”

To ensure that the voice of those that will live with that vision are included in shaping it, the IAEA engaged students and young professionals to contribute to the debate. At the Young Generation Forum, on 29 April, aspiring nuclear law experts will present their views on how nuclear law can most effectively respond to the current and emerging global and technical challenges. 

During a special side event on 26 April, The Legal Brief: Nuclear Law Today and Tomorrow, five winners of an international essay competition will present their ideas in a TED-style talks. Selected from 64 submissions from 28 countries, the winning essays discuss the legal aspects of the international licensing of SMRs, environmental accountability in a global nuclear liability regime, floating nuclear power plants, nuclear terrorism in maritime context and nuclear applications in space.

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