What is Nuclear Law?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 13 February 2020
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Nuclear law is an area of the law pertaining to the use, development, and study of nuclear materials for peaceful purposes like scientific research, energy generation, and medical treatment. Some people also include laws involving nuclear weapons under this heading, while others treat this as a separate category of the law. Many nations have regulations in place to protect public safety and interests, and there are also international laws regarding the peaceful use of nuclear material.

This area of the law is large and very complex. Nuclear elements are dangerous and have a potential for abuse, making it important to protect health and safety by tightly controlling their production, use, and handling. Nuclear law covers everything from safety procedures at hospitals, where people use radioactive material, to liability for nuclear power plants, requiring such plants to meet hefty insurance requirements to cover liability in the event of an accident.

Nuclear science and technology are very large fields. Researchers use radioactive isotopes in a variety of tasks, and nuclear law governs who has access to these materials, how researchers use them, and what people do with them when they are done. People working in nuclear research usually need safety training, may need to pass background checks, and must make sure their facilities practice safe containment and disposal.


Medical research and treatment with nuclear isotopes is another area of interest in nuclear law. The law covers disclosures to patients, handling of isotopes in medical facilities, and manufacturing practices. The goal is to make sure that patients can access radiotherapy safely, while limiting abuse of radioactive isotopes and protecting medical care providers who are at risk from repeat exposure.

Nuclear power is also a matter of concern. Governments with nuclear power facilities want to make sure the facilities run safely, follow modern procedures, and dispose of waste nuclear materials properly. Enrichment of nuclear materials to run a power plant can also generate materials that could be used in a bomb, and international law may mandate periodic inspections to confirm that all uses of nuclear enrichment in a nation are peaceful.

International nuclear law focuses on topics like nonproliferation, safety when transporting materials, and making isotopes available for researchers and medical practitioners around the world. International law includes a complex framework of treaties, regulations, and agreements between nations with nuclear capacity to ensure that nuclear materials are used safely and for peaceful purposes. International law also prohibits the detonation of nuclear weapons in space, although people can bring isotopes into space for the purpose of research and development.


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