Vienna Declaration on Nuclear Safety

Johnowen Lowe
June 24, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Fukushima Site. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

International cooperation and coordination is paramount to global safety with regards to nuclear energy. However, significant hurdles exist for the agreement on and implementation of best practices and proper safety measures. While the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) was originally formed to further advance the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 highlighted the widespread harmful impacts of a nuclear accident. [1] The Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS), a treaty of the IAEA, was put together to govern safety measures for civilian nuclear power plants. The CNS was first signed by 65 nations in 1994 and went into effect after being ratified by 22 of the signators. [2]

Treaties like the CNS present complicated problems. Signator nations are hesitant to ratify multilateral international agreements as the terms may lock them in to something they do not want. The legality of a treaty is often called into question at times of dispute and rarely is there a body or organization with the power or money to back it up. Therefore, these types of treaties are often viewed more as guidelines and less as actual binding conditions. It is often seen that as soon as one country drops out of a treaty, the rest of the countries follow suit.

The Vienna Declaration

Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster (Fig. 1), the CNS looked to improve the safety standards for civilian nuclear reactor. The Swiss contingent offered a proposal that was strict in its enhancement, yet this proposal was resoundly rejected by the United States and Russia, among other countries. The reasons for rejection were numerous: too costly, too cumbersome to get ratified by different governments, and more likely to cause countries to pull out of the treaty, to name a few. In the end, the Vienna Declaration was a sort of compromise. It called for the retrofitting of old nuclear plants and the minimization of contamination, but it did not create a law. [3]

Moving Forward

It is a common view that it is a country's sovereign right to have civilian nuclear energy. Many treaties have been enacted to reduce or prevent nuclear weapon; treaties have also been implemented to help govern best practices of civilian nuclear plants. [4] While treaties related to weapons are, generally, backed by one or more nations and are enforceable, treaties related to civilian facilities often lack backing and repercussions. The current and future issue is whether these agreements should be treated as legally binding instruments or as guidelines for best practices of operations.

© Johnowen Lowe. 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] W. Patterson, "Nuclear Watchdog Finds Its Job," New Scientist, No. 1557, 23 Apr 87, p. 50.

[2] "Nuclear Safety," U.S. General Accounting Office, GAO-10-489, April 2010, p. 32.

[3] S. Nasralla, "U.S. Derails Amendment to Toughen Nuclear Safety Pact: Diplomats", Reuters, 9 Feb 15.

[4] D. Fleck, "The Right to Develop Research, Production and Use of Nuclear Energy for Peaceful Purposes: Shortcomings and Loopholes in Legal Regulation," in Nuclear Non-Proliferation in International - Law Volume III, ed. by J. L. Black-Branch and D. Fleck (Springer, 2016), p. 543.