HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Japan's Nuclear Crisis and International Law

One of the best sources for information about the radiation leaks coming from reactors in Japan is being generated by the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), the international body overseeing nuclear energy activites based in Vienna. Today’s update indicates that tests are now underway by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) to determine radionuclide concentrations found in sea water and dose rate, results to be available Thursday.

The overriding question is whether more legal oversight or protection measures would have prevented this catastrophic threat to public health. The IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) is the global focal point for international preparedness and response to nuclear and radiological safety or security related incidents, emergencies, threats or events of media interest. But their role is only as strong as the agreements that the agency administers. Japan is a party to the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS), and the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM).

The CNS commits parties to minimize public exposure to radiation, conduct systematic assessment and verification of risks, and have adequate emergency preparedness. However, the effectiveness of Article 17, the siting of nuclear facilities, is one of the provisions that probably requires the most scrutiny in this case. The article is weak and provides only that “appropriate procedures are established and implemented” by parties to ensure that site-related safety factors are evaluated, and parties likely to be affected are consulted. Reporting requirements enable the IAEA to check on compliance, and other parties to express concern about decisions, but states are free to site plants in risky zones. The international community needs to promulgate binding standards to prevent siting of plants in earthquake and tsunami-prone areas, or at least require more emergency back-up plans and better safeguards if located in these places. One of the responses to this disaster should be more discussion about Article 17.

Japan is also a party to the Convention on Assistance in Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency and the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident (Emergency Conventions) are the prime legal instruments that establish an international framework to facilitate the exchange of information and the prompt provision of assistance in the event of a nuclear accident or radiological emergency. These Emergency Conventions are probably responsible for the speed at which the international community has been informed of the incident and transboundary radiation threats. [MM]

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