Nuclear energy means the energy released by controlled nuclear reactions. Nuclear energy can be either natural or man-made. Natural nuclear energy is that which is produced naturally. For example, heat and light produced by the sun and other stars through nuclear reactions is natural nuclear energy. Man-made nuclear energy is one generated with the help of nuclear reaction operations under human control. For example, the energy generated by explosion of atomic and hydrogen bombs are man-made nuclear energy.
Man-made nuclear energy is obtained either by splitting of heavy atoms or by the joining of light atoms. Usually, nuclear energy is produced with the help of a nuclear power plant which makes a controlled atomic chain reaction for producing heat. Nuclear energy, also known as atomic energy, serves as an important source of power.
Generally, nuclear energy is used for the production of electricity. In U.S. the nuclear energy is the second largest source of electricity and it constitutes a significant contribution to U.S. energy security. The advantages of nuclear energy are:
- it produces more energy when compared to hydro and wind energy. Currently about 18% of the world’s electricity is generated through nuclear energy;
- it does not emit carbon dioxide or other air pollutants from the operation of its reactors; and
- it uses uranium as its fuel which is abundantly present in the earth.
The disadvantages of nuclear energy are:
- it can be used for production and expansion of nuclear weapons which may case large-scale devastation;
- it requires large capital cost;
- it produces unstable waste elements that are highly radioactive; and
- it is dangerous to the environment as well as human health because of the radiation that it produces and lack of economical and safe disposal of radioactive nuclear wastes.
The major concern of the nuclear energy law is the health and safety issues related with the electricity generation using a potentially hazardous energy source. In the U.S., in order to ensure the peaceful use of an atom in an industrial society generating nuclear energy, the Congress enacted the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (McMahon Act). Later, to promote the commercial development of nuclear energy, Congress enacted the Atomic Energy Act of 1954[i]. The 1954 Act applies to both the civilian and the military uses of nuclear materials. It also deals with the development and regulation of the uses of nuclear materials.
In 1964, the 1954 Act was amended to permit private ownership of fissionable materials. The main objective of the 1964 act was:
- to ensure the common defense and security; and
- to ensure the public health and safety in the commercial utilization of nuclear energy.
Subsequently, in 2005, the Energy Policy Act incorporated certain amendments to the 1964 Act. It contained provisions relating to:
- demonstration of hydrogen production at existing nuclear power plants[ii];
- prohibition of federal government from assuming liability for nuclear incidents occurring in connection with the design, construction, or operation of a production facility or utilization facility in any country. Provided the government of such country must be identified by the Secretary of State as engaged in state sponsorship of terrorist activities[iii];
- authorization of payments by the Secretary of Energy, if full power operation of an advanced nuclear facility is delayed by licensing procedures or litigation[iv],
- introduction of a Next Generation Nuclear Plant Project[v];
- nuclear facility and materials security[vi];and
- nuclear energy research programs[vii].
In 1974, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was established under the Energy Reorganization Act. The NRC is an independent administrative government agency responsible for the regulation of commercial nuclear energy. The main function of NRC is to oversee[viii]:
- the nuclear reactor’s safety and security;
- the nuclear reactor’s licensing and renewal;
- the radioactive material’s safety;
- the spent fuel management including storage, security, recycling, and disposal of nuclear reactor; and
- the issue of specific licenses for the commercial export and import of nuclear facilities, components, and materials.
Any action for violation of the Act can be commenced by the U.S. Attorney General. However, such action cannot be brought until the Attorney General is advised with respect to the action by the NRC. With respect to administrative action taken by the NRC such restrictions does not apply[ix]. In addition, any private litigant including a municipality cannot sue under the Act[x].
[i] 42 USCS § 2011.
[ii] 42 USCS § 16011.
[iii] 42 USCS § 16012.
[iv] 42 USCS § 16014.
[v] 42 USCS § 16021.
[vi] 42 USCS § 16041.
[vii] 42 USCS § 16271.
[viii] 42 USCS § 5841.
[ix] 42 USCS § 2271.
[x] Pauling v. McElroy, 164 F. Supp. 390 (D.D.C. 1958).