Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space

A positive step towards protecting the human environment was taken on December 14, 1992, with the adoption by the U.N. General Assembly of the Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space. These eleven Principles, with the Resolution adopting them, culminate efforts going back to 1972.

The subject first came to the attention of the U.N.’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) during the negotiations on the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects of 1972. The negotiators were influenced by the use by the United States of America of radioisotope generators in outer space, which began in 1961, and by its use of nuclear reactors in outer space, which began in 1965. The unprogrammed re-entry of the Soviet nuclear-powered satellite, Kosmos 954, into Canada on January 24, 1978, served to stimulate the formulation of the 1992 principles.

History

On February 16, 1978, Canada brought the Kosmos 954 situation to the attention of the Scientific and Technical Sub-committee of COPUOS. From that date onward, Canada demonstrated an ongoing commitment to secure the promulgation of a relevant body of principles. On February 27, 1978, Canada and seven other members of COPUOS submitted a proposal to the Scientific and Technical Sub-committee urging the development of “a technical base for a multilateral regime of strict and fully effective standards, safeguards, and limitations pertaining to the use of nuclear power sources in space”.

On April 4, 1978, fifteen countries submitted a working paper to the Legal Sub-committee. Attention was called to issues of safety, giving of notice, emergency assistance, responsibility, and damages. From the outset, both Sub-committees sought each other’s advice, and were in agreement that basic standards promulgated by the International Commission on Radiological Protection, were relevant.

Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space

The Principles must be read m connection with the provisions of the four additional COPUOS agreements, namely, the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space of 1967, the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts, and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space of 1968, the Convention on the Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space of 1976, and the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies of 1979.

During the negotiations, the fear was expressed that the Principles might be considered to be at variance with some of the terms of the foregoing agreements. Consensus, the modality employed in COPUOS, upheld the consistency of the Principles and the formal agreements. The Principles must also be viewed in light of the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident of 1986, and the companion Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency of 1987.

The Preamble of the Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space notably states: “Recognizing that for some missions in outer space nuclear power sources are particularly suited or even essential owing to their compactness, long life and other attributes” and “Recognizing also that the use of nuclear power sources in outer space should focus on those applications which take advantage of the particular properties of nuclear power sources”.

The Preamble of the Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space then adds: “Recognizing further that the use of nuclear power sources in outer space should be based on a thorough safety assessment, including probabilistic risk analysis, with particular emphasis on reducing the risk of accidental exposure of the public to harmful radiation or radioactive material”, and “Recognizing the need, in this respect, for a set of principles containing goals and guidelines to ensure the safe use of nuclear power sources in outer space”.

The Preamble of the Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space finally declares: “Affirming that this set of Principles applies to nuclear power sources in outer space devoted to the generation of electric power on board space objects for non-propulsive purposes, which have characteristics generally comparable to those of systems used and missions performed at the time of the adoption of the Principles”, and, importantly, “Recognizing that this set of Principles will require future revision in view of emerging nuclear power applications and of evolving international recommendations on radiological protection”.

Principle 1. of the Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space on Applicability of international law states that “Activities involving the use of nuclear power sources in outer space shall be carried out in accordance with international law, including in particular the Charter of the United Nations and the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”.

Principle 2. of the Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space concerns Use of terms and Principle 3. on Guidelines and criteria for safe use affirms that “use is restricted to missions that cannot reasonably be operated by non-nuclear energy sources”. General goals for radiation protection and nuclear safety concerns the minimization of radiation exposure during normal operation and accidents; Nuclear reactors is about permitted missions, orbits, fuel, critical operation and disposal; and Radioisotope generators is about permitted missions, orbits and containment.

Principle 4. of the Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space on Safety assessment notably states that “Pursuant to article XI of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, the results of this safety assessment, together with, to the extent feasible, an indication of the approximate intended time-frame of the launch, shall be made publicly available prior to each launch, and the Secretary-General of the United Nations shall be informed on how States may obtain such results of the safety assessment as soon as possible prior to each launch”.

Principle 5. of the Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space on Notification of re-entry affirms that “Any State launching a space object with nuclear power sources on board shall in a timely fashion inform States concerned in the event this space object is malfunctioning with a risk of re-entry of radioactive materials to the Earth”. It then adds that “The information shall be provided by the launching State as soon as the malfunction has become known. It shall be updated as frequently as practicable and the frequency of dissemination of the updated information shall increase as the anticipated time of re-entry into the dense layers of the Earth’s atmosphere approaches so that the international community will be informed of the situation and will have sufficient time to plan for any national response activities deemed necessary”.

Principle 8. of the Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space on Responsibility declares that “In accordance with article VI of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, States shall bear international responsibility for national activities involving the use of nuclear power sources in outer space, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that such national activities are carried out in conformity with that Treaty and the recommendations contained in these Principles. When activities in outer space involving the use of nuclear power sources are carried on by an international organization, responsibility for compliance with the aforesaid Treaty and the recommendations contained in these Principles shall be borne both by the international organization and by the States participating in it”.

Principle 9. of the aforementioned Resolution, on Liability and compensation, notably states that “In accordance with article VII of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, and the provisions of the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, each State which launches or procures the launching of a space object and each State from whose territory or facility a space object is launched shall be internationally liable for damage caused by such space objects or their component parts. This fully applies to the case of such a space object carrying a nuclear power source on board. Whenever two or more States jointly launch such a space object, they shall be jointly and severally liable for any damage caused, in accordance with article V of the above-mentioned Convention”.

Finally, Principle 10. of the Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space on Settlement of disputes enounces that “Any dispute resulting from the application of these Principles shall be resolved through negotiations or other established procedures for the peaceful settlement of disputes, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations”.