UPDATE: Nuclear Law Research

By Linda Tashbook

Linda Tashbook is the Foreign International Comparative Law Librarian at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law's Barco Law Library, a Fulbright Senior Specialist, and an attorney in private practice. Prior to becoming the foreign and international law librarian, she was the Barco Law Library's Electronic Services Librarian. Before law school, she worked as a public librarian. Her Juris Doctor and Master of Library Science degrees are from the University of Pittsburgh.

Published May/June 2021

(Previously updated in January 2013 and in May/June 2017)

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1. Background

An atom is the smallest unit of any element. The core of an atom is its nucleus, which is a combination of particles called protons and neutrons. Protons are positively charged particles and neutrons are neutral. Spinning around the outside of the nucleus are electrons, very small negatively charged particles. The particular combination of protons, neutrons, and electrons in the atoms of an element provides the element’s identity.

Two elements, plutonium and uranium, have isotopes (variations) which, when hit with a slow-moving neutron, will split. This causes these atoms to send their own neutrons crashing into other atoms, which in turn causes those to split. All of this action, called fission, generates energy. Since it happens in the nucleus, the energy is called nuclear energy. This fast chain reaction of spare neutrons from broken atoms hitting and breaking other atoms can be controlled by the addition of certain other elements, or else it can be allowed to continue until so much energy builds up that it causes an explosion. In other words, the process that generates safe nuclear energy is the same process that generates dangerous nuclear weapons.

Nuclear law regulates the possession, transportation, storage, and distribution of the plutonium and uranium isotopes that are prone to nuclear fission, and it also regulates the ways fission has to be controlled. All of the following types of resources contain useful information about the existence, meaning, application, or enforcement of international nuclear law.

2. Ready Reference

The following sources provide fundamental facts about nuclear energy or nuclear weapons:

3. International Organizations

There are numerous agencies responsible for the layers of communication, regulation, and enforcement associated with nuclear resources. Note that this list identifies IGOs working on official information sharing, safety, and security. It does not include the many NGO advocacy and education organizations that may have information of interest to legal researchers but are not directly involved in making or enforcing international law.

3.1. Information Sharing

3.2. Safety

When nuclear science is used in medicine, energy generation, and manufacturing, safety standards and regulations seek to assure that all supplies are accounted for and that accidents do not happen.

3.3. Security

International security measures prepare governments to handle nuclear accidents and intentional nuclear destruction.

4. Treaties

This treaty list includes some guidance documents, such as codes of conduct, which are not strictly treaties because they arise more from the work of international organizations than from collective government negotiation. However, because of their informational role in standardizing expectations and advising regulatory development, these documents will be useful to researchers alongside treaties.

Although the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb in 1945, it was not until 1963 that the first nuclear weapons treaty, The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, was enacted. See Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, History.com (Nov. 9, 2009 and updated on Aug. 21, 2018); Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, JFK Presidential Library and Museum; Test Ban Treaty (1963), ourdocuments.gov; and Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), United Nations.

Master Nuclear Treaty Lists are available from:

4.1. Treaties about Handling & Transportation of Nuclear Materials

4.2. Treaties about National Cooperation on Nuclear Matters

4.3. Treaties about Waste Management

4.4. Treaties about Nuclear Weapons

4.5. Treaties about Nuclear Damage

5. National Laws on Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Weapons

Sites that can lead researchers to nuclear agencies and policies

Examples of National Law

Keep an eye on the Global Legal Monitor for emerging nuclear law developments around the world.



See Legifrance for legislation. Use search term: “nucleaire.”

South Korea




United States

6. Case Reports

The International Atomic Energy Agency is responsible for monitoring national compliance with international nuclear agreements. When that agency has reason to believe that a country is violating international agreements, it informs the UN Security Council, which can issue resolutions, statements, and sanctions. Here, for example, are Resolutions and Statements relevant to nuclear issues in Iran. These efforts typically rally national governments to cease certain aspects of trade with the non-compliant country or to freeze assets, etc. National governments themselves, individually or collectively, can seek advice or action from the International Court of Justice. Victims harmed by inadequate or failed nuclear safeguards can sue in domestic court or bring claims in human rights tribunals. Most of the regional human rights tribunals have not dealt with nuclear issues, but there have been some nuclear cases in the European Court of Human Rights.

Here are some of the most well-known international nuclear cases:

7. Books about Nuclear Law

United Nations Monographs

International nuclear energy law books might be classed in various places within the US Library of Congress’s K3600-3990 call number range, but nuclear energy regulation specifically falls in K3986-K3990. Examples include

Nuclear weapons law is amidst other use of force materials in the US Library of Congress’s KZ 5600s and 6300-6400s. Examples include

8. Journals