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New Report on the Legal Framework for Nuclear Technology and Information in the United Kingdom and Australia

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Title page of the Law Library’s report “Legal Framework for Nuclear Technology and Information”

The following is a guest post by Clare Feikert-Ahalt, a senior foreign law specialist at the Law Library of Congress covering the United Kingdom and several other jurisdictions. Clare has written numerous posts for In Custodia Legis, including Revealing the Presences of GhostsWeird Laws, or Urban Legends?FALQs: Brexit Referendum; and  100 Years of “Poppy Day” in the United Kingdom

The Law Library recently published a report titled Legal Framework for Nuclear Technology and Information that covers Australia and the United Kingdom. The report provides a high level overview of how these countries’ laws and policies require them to handle nuclear technology and information, including in the context of meeting some of the obligations contained in the new AUKUS agreement on the exchange of naval nuclear propulsion information, which was signed by Australia, the UK, and the United States (US) in November 2021.

The AUKUS agreement enables Australia, which produces around a third of the world’s uranium but is a non-nuclear state with regard to both electricity generation and weapons, to acquire nuclear-powered submarine technology for the first time. The UK was the third country in the world to develop nuclear weapons and conducted its first test in October 1952. Since then it has developed both nuclear energy and weapons and has a robust legal framework that governs the safety and security of both. The UK and US have had a longstanding agreement relating to the uses of nuclear energy for defense purposes in place since 1958.

As a non-nuclear weapon state, Australia’s legal framework relating to atomic energy is focused on the control of nuclear material, including environmental protections, health and safety issues, and the import and export of these materials. Australia is currently reviewing what amendments might be required to its existing legal framework to enable the lawful acquisition of nuclear-propelled submarines and is considering how the US regulatory system operates.

The UK legislative framework covers nuclear security, weapons, energy, health and safety, emergency preparedness, import, export, and environmental issues. It has a number of regulatory bodies which, along with the Ministry of Defence, work to ensure the safety and security of nuclear technology and industry.

To ensure the security of nuclear information and technology, Australian legislation permits restrictions and conditions to be placed on the communication of certain information. There is currently no specific reference to nuclear information in Australia’s Protective Security Policy Framework, which sets out how government information must be classified and how information from foreign governments under international information sharing agreements must be handled. The Australian Criminal Code contains offenses related to breaches of information security.

The UK protects classified information it receives from international partners in accordance with the specifics of the agreements from the country sharing the information. In cases where nothing is specified in an agreement, the UK classifies information or assets received as official but may provide a higher classification if needed. The classification of information reflects the impact that would result from its compromise, loss, or misuse, along with the “need to defend against a broad profile of applicable threats.” Outside of the government classification system, the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, the Nuclear Industries Security Regulations 2003, and the Energy Act 2013 provide a statutory framework for the protection of sensitive nuclear information.

The UK’s nuclear information and assets, both civilian and military, are further protected through the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, the Official Secrets Act 1989, the Atomic Energy Act 1946, and the Nuclear Industries Security Regulations. These laws provide for a series of offenses for disclosing certain official information without authorization and require approved security plans to be in place.

We invite you to review the information provided in our report. You can also browse additional reports from the Law Library on other topics.

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