Peaceful Nuclear Guidelines in Space

Caroline Beaudoin
March 15, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016

Fig. 1:Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMS) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the past, the government of a country was responsible for planning all of the missions to space. Private industry now plays an important role in space, so countries around the globe have space programs divided into three sectors: civil, military, and commercial. Regardless of the sectors, the government of each respective country is responsible for ensuring the safety of all members included even in the non-governmental programs. With the growing use of intercontinental ballistic missiles in space and the inherent danger space poses, it is extremely important to have a basis for encouraging, facilitating, and promoting safety in space. Fig. 1 shows the type of weapon that needs to be regulated. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs has compromised and allowed private individuals to use space, but in the end the state is responsible and liable for it all. [1]

The Rise of the Role of the United Nations in Space Law

The United Nations plays a vital role in ensuring the safe use of space. It secured its position as the overarching governing body of space law after its reaction to the "sputnik shock". When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I the effect was massive. The launch came as a shock to the American people who were unaware. As a result of the tensions between the Soviets and Americans at the height of the Cold War, the United States was able to launch Explorer 1 in a matter of months as retaliation. As relations between the two countries fell less and less stable and the threat of nuclear war at stake, both countries sought to expand their power in space. [2] Both countries faced whether each other's objects in space were considered a militarization of space. Was space the new battlefield? Fearing the use of weapons of mass destruction in space, the United Nations stepped in and reacted. One year after the sputnik shock, the general assembly convened and established a Peaceful Uses of Outer Space committee (UNCOPUOS). The committee deemed that "outer space should be used for peaceful purposes only." This meant that the international governing body would not tolerate placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit. They encourage the use of space in order to benefit all of man kind. Additionally, they have set the expectation that the United Nation controls what can and cannot be done in space. [1]

What Does Peaceful Use of Outer Space Entail?

The question of what exactly is peaceful use of space arises. The United Nations agreed that space objects used for military purposes such as surveillance, navigation, and weather are lawful as they are necessary to operate a successful and peaceful military. The use of force such as weapons of mass destruction however is not peaceful. Peaceful use to the committee is equivalent to civilian use. According to Article 2 part 4, it should also be non-aggressive and non-destructive. Doing so ensures the use of space free to all states because what is done in space concerns the whole international community. [1]

The Current Role of the United Nations on Nuclear Space Law

The United Nations has continued to build on its space law committee. It has established 5 major treaties on outer space. The most influential one in terms of nuclear guidelines is the first treaty called the Outer Space Treaty. This treaty provides the foundation of international law. It spells out the constitution of outer space and expresses that states must be bound to the treaty. Additionally, the United Nations created a Scientific and Technical Subcommittee in 1961 to tackle the specific questions regarding the use of nuclear power sources in space. The subcommittee addressed the use of nuclear power sources in space, deeming them allowable only for "missions which cannot be operated by non-nuclear sources in a reasonable way." Nuclear power systems must also include "design features and mission operations in place of or in addition to active systems, to prevent or mitigate the consequences of system malfunctions." The most prominent consequence in question radioactive material contaminating outer space. [3]

© Caroline Beaudoin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Report Of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space," United Nations General Assembly, 62nd Session, Supplement No. 20 (A/62/20), 2007.

[2] J. N. Wilford, "With Fear and Wonder in Its Wake, Sputnik Lifted Us Into the Future," New York Times, 25 Sep 07

[3] "Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space," United Nations General Assembly, 47th Session, Resolution A/RES/47/68, 23 Feb 93.