Washington International Law Journal


During the second half of 2003, Russia announced plans to build barges carrying two nuclear reactors capable of supplying electricity to a town of fifty thousand people. Rapidly developing countries seem particularly interested in this proposal, as these reactors can meet their growing power needs. In addition, these floating nuclear reactors provide an alternative to coal, oil and natural gas, all sources of energy that contribute to global warming. These reactors, however, pose a substantial risk to the environment, particularly in light of Russia's lax environmental policies, and the design of the barges themselves make them susceptible to a wide variety of threats. Currently there are no international legal regimes that would either prescribe enforceable standards for Russia regarding the design and operation of these reactors, or impose liability on Russia in the event of an accident and resulting damage to the environment. All of the relevant treaties administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency have gaps that preclude them from imposing regulatory duties or liability on Russia as a state, and its agents, in the event of an accident. Similarly, although both international customary environmental law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea impose upon nations the duty to prevent pollution of the marine environment, the ability to enforce those duties and impose legal liability for their breach remains in doubt. Therefore, the international community should either: 1) close the gaps in current legal regimes (including treaty-based and customary law regimes) 2); develop a new regime (either based on treaties, or through further development of customary international law) that would effectively regulate and impose liability for damage to the environment resulting from an accident involving these reactors; or 3) cooperate in developing and deploying safer alternative technologies to fulfill the need for power generation that these floating reactors address. Of these alternatives, the simplest is the closing of current gaps in treaties, although the most effective may be a combination of approaches that effectively utilizes the strengths of each alternative.

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