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  • Writer's pictureBrain Booster Articles


Author: Ritwick Nikhil Majumder, IV year of B.B.A.,LL.B. from SYMBIOSIS LAW SCHOOL, PUNE

ABSTRACT The concept of deploying nuclear energy in space is not a novel one. The United States and Russia have exploited nuclear energy sources since the 1960sin its space missions. Radioisotope Power Systems were used on numerous NASA missions, including Voyager, Ulysses, New Horizons, Cassini, and Curiosity. The sole alternative for long-distance space travel at this time is nuclear power. Solar power methods will not enough if humankind desires to explore unknown territories such as the Moon, Mars, and even beyond.


1. Whether there are any international conventions and agreements that governs the use of NPS in space?

2. What liability and insurance issues arise from the use of NPS in space, and how are they addressed by national and international legal frameworks?

3. What laws and regulations control the disposal of nuclear waste and other hazardous materials in space, and how have they changed over time?

4. Whether the current scenario of the use of NPS can be improved for the betterment of mankind or not?


A. To evaluate the legislative frameworks that control the deployment of NPS in space exploration and assess how well they promote environmental protection, safety, and compliance.

B. To highlight all the important events related to Cosmos-954 incident.

C. To identify areas that require additional legal review and policy development to close gaps and enhance the best NPS usage practices for space exploration.


Solar energy provides the majority of the spacecraft's energy requirements during the voyage in outer space. Solar cells have improved considerably over the past decade in terms of functionality for equipment carried by satellites and in near-Earth orbits. The long-distance expeditions of space, especially manned missions, need nuclear power as a fuel source and cannot rely solely on solar power.[1]Ever since 1960s, the United States and Russia have harnessed nuclear energy to generate power as well as heat for their manned moon missions and interplanetary explorations. The Earth observation satellite was powered by a tiny fission reactor called the TOPAZ Nuclear Reactor. Russia is claimed to have sent roughly 40 reactors into orbit, and its TOPAZ-II reactor can generate 10 kilowatts of energy for the space expedition.

Prolonged space missions can harness energy from two primary sources only- the sun’s ray or heat produced by radioactive decay naturally. Therefore, technically the only option for prolonged space exploration programs is nuclear energy. Solar power systems won't be enough if humans intend on discovering new places like the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Nuclear energy makes it possible to launch research missions to other planets.

One of the most dependable and transportable systems are Radioisotope powersystems. This RPS maintains essential spacecraft components heated enough to work in the frigid, dark depths of deep space while also providing basic operational fuel. Plutonium-238 decay produces heat, which RPS systems immediately convert to electricity. Because it can create significant heat in tiny amounts and can readily be shielded from comparatively low levels of radiation, plutonium-238 is considered to be an effective space source of power. Moreover, it has a half-life of 88 years, which indicates that it requires that long for its heat production to be cut in half.[2]


One of the notable events in the history of space exploration was the launch of Cosmos 954" Reconnaissance Satellite. It was the first spacecraft that carried a nuclear power source on board. The satellite disaster that caught the attention of the international media is one that is frequently discussed. Humans began to take more seriously space missions including nuclear sources.

The Soviets launched the Cosmos 954 on September 18, 1977. The White House labeled the satellite as an ocean-surveillance satellite which locates U.S. Navy warships it was one of 16 such sats. In order to make Cosmos 952 inoperable, it was launched from its 150-mile orbit on December 25 and elevated to a height of more than 600 miles. Previously 14 surveillance satellites were taken sufficiently far from Earth by performing the same maneuver with their atomic reactors. The same procedure was followed for Cosmos-954, but it failed miserably. Rather than forcing the spacecraft into a higher orbit, it forced the satellite to come down in an unexpected manner. The reactor had highly enriched uranium weighing 110 pounds. The satellite hit Canadian airspace at approximately 11:53 AM on January 24, 1978, when it first penetrated the upper orbit. The satellite burnt in the atmosphere and dispersed radioactive uranium fission products. It affected several places in Canada. [1]

The satellite debris was located near a place close to Arctic circle. At least 1,000,000 curies of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation were present across the satellite's whole uranium core. The radiation was not caused by uranium only but also by radioactive fission byproducts including strontium-90 and cesium-137.[2]


Many concerns were voiced following the Cosmos 954 event from all across the world.Since the search activities cost more than a million dollars, the Canadian government approached the Soviet Union for reimbursement.Logistics became more difficult due to the intricate cleaning procedures and collection of radioactive waste, and the sub-Arctic cold added extra challenges. This also increased the cost of damages. After extensive talks, both nations ultimately agreed to sign the treaty on April 2, 1981, to settle claims for damages. The government of U.S.S.R paid a humongous sum of three million Canadian dollars.

The Canadian Government asserted its claim on the basis of 1972’s ‘Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects’ and the principles of international law. A breach of Canadian sovereignty occurred when the Cosmos 954 entered Canadian airspace and left behind dangerous radioactive material on Canadian soil.A well-established international precedent acknowledges that a breach of sovereignty results in a duty to pay compensation.The guiding premise established by the Liability Convention for space activities is the launch State's unrestricted liability. [1]

Furthermore, operations surrounding the utilization of nuclear energy demonstrate the absolute liability principle, which is being pushed to establish a fundamental principle of international law. Numerous international accords allude to the principle of absolute accountability in high-risk fields/activities, and it is also acknowledged by civilized nations. Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice incorporates general principles of international law.


When it comes to the utilization of nuclear energy on land, legal principles are very clear. In contrast, it appears to be insufficient when compared to space. In addition to UN resolutions, there are two other soft law concepts that specifically address NPS in space.This includes

1. Principles Related to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space adopted by UNGA in Resolution 47/68.[1]

2. Safety Framework for Nuclear Power Source Uses in Outer Space" in 2009.

The Cosmos 954 disaster led to the development of these Principles and the Safety Framework. Both of them are considered as soft law.


The United States launched its first satellite in 1958, followed by the U.S.S.R. in 1957. Due to increase in space programs, the US suggested a convention that would govern damages caused while launching flight, and re-entry of payloads.


1. In 1962, The United States presented a set of substantive responsibility principles during 'United Nations Outer Space Law Subcommittee' meeting.

2. UNGA’s ‘Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space’ on December 13, 1963. This Declaration served as the framework for the Outer Space Treaty[1]

3. The concepts outlined in Article VII of the Outer Space Treaty were codified in 1972 with the entry into force of the ‘Convention on International Responsibility for Damage Caused by Space Objects’.

The concept of absolute liability is discussed in the Liability Convention, but the Outer Space Treaty fails to mention it. Three crucial components are covered under Article VII of the Outer Space Treaty:

1. Damages

2. Damages done by any space object.

3. Proximate causation

But the treaty doesn't specify what constitutes damage. In assessing the amount of compensation to be paid for the harm, the Liability Convention also refers to the concepts of justice and equity.[1]


The Rescue Agreement is another important agreement that is connected to the present case. This Agreement is an expansion of the Outer Space Treaty's Articles 5 and 8.

When a Contracting Party learns that a space object or a component of one has landed on its territory, it is required by the Article 5 to inform both the deploying authority as well as the Secretary-General.

According to the Rescue Agreement's Article 5, a contracting party may demand the deploying party to undertake prompt and productive measures to remove any potential injury or risk if it considers a space object or part it as hazardous for humankind. The launching party will also compensate for the expenses involved while retrieving or restoring a space object. The Soviet Union was likewise informed by the Canadians during Cosmos 954 as mandated. The Cosmos 954's initial reports indicate that the Canadians weren't requesting the Russians to implement any measures to eliminate the potential threat, whereas they accepted the Soviet Union's proposal of aid in this regard34. When the Cosmos 954 incident transpired, the Soviet Union and Canada both ratified the Liability Convention and were obligated by its terms.[1]

After the most drawn-out treaty talks since 1945, the ‘Outer Space Liability Convention’ was finally drafted in June 1971. According to the Agreement,

The launching State is responsible for any harm caused by its mistakes in space and is "completely accountable" to pay damages for any harm done to aircraft or to the earth's surface by its spacecraft. The launching State is totally accountable under this Agreement, hence there is no need to demonstrate evidence of negligence.[2]

Article 1 of the convention defines the term ‘Damages’. It includes loss of life or property of the State or of inter-governmental organizations.[1]The Liability Convention refers to the absolute liability concept and states that collectively launching a space object are equally accountable for any damages.The launching State is responsible for compensating the claimant in order to put them back in the same situation they would have been in if the damage hadn't occurred.One of the Convention's key clauses, Article VIII, states that a State may seek compensatory damages for harms caused by a State that launched an attack. This demand must be made using diplomatic means. The compensation must be calculated in accordance to principles of justice and equity. It was argued that although there were no fatalities, accidents, or other medical conditions directly related to Cosmos 954, the radiation undoubtedly caused serious damage to Canadian infrastructure, making the Soviet Union responsible for the losses.Expenses should be considered more broadly, particularly when radioactive materials have caused harm. It could consist of actions made by the contracting party as a preventative strategy to lessen potential future damages.


The responsibility in outer space needs to be evaluated from a sustainable development point of view in addition to legal and policy considerations. Not every satellite with nuclear fuel abroad has experienced a mishap, including Cosmos 954.Nonetheless, it has undoubtedly raised the issue of inadequate legal protection at a time of ambiguity. To lessen the likelihood of such future mishaps or dangers resulting from the use of radioactive atomic or nuclear power sources in space, it is imperative to have a variety of particular or in a combination of policy alternatives.

1. Strong safety/precautionary requirements and safeguards must be implemented in Earth-orbiting satellites bearing NPS. That will drastically cut down on the risks and help stop radioactive particles from contaminating the Planet or the atmosphere.

2. Early notification is covered under an IAEA convention. While using NPS in spacecraft, it should be standard procedure to inform the appropriate agencies in advance of any approaching threat at different phases of space operations.

3. International treaty must exist for the disclosure of NPS by the launching State before departure, during launch, during descent, and in the case of a malfunction or returning of such to Earth. Technology could contribute in the placement of dangerous compounds in a higher and safer orbit as well as the creation of a type of umbrella to lessen the risks that reach the earth's surroundings.

4. Lastly, we can suggest a few possibilities with respect to the issue of liability, such as developing a revolutionary international agreement with an explicit clause to pay for the costs associated with monitoring debris, managing public health concerns, and taking preventative measures to avoid contamination.




· S. Neil Hosenball, Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space, 6 JOURNAL OF SPACE LAW (1978).


· Stephen Gorove, Cosmos 954: Issues of Law and Policy, 6 JOURNAL OF SPACE LAW 138, 137-146 (1978)


· Dr. Priyanka Manoj Jawale, Nuclear Power Sources (NPS) In Outer Space –Reviewing Liability Aspect with Special Reference To Kosmos 954/Cosmos 954 Reconnaissance Satellite Accidents, 11 IJASL 141, 129-150 (2021)

· Eilene Galloway, Nuclear Power Satellites: the U.S.S.R. Cosmos 954 and the Canadian claim, 12 Akron L. Rev. 401, 401-415 (1979).

· Art. I (c), the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, 1972.

[1] Art. I (c), the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, 1972.

[1] Eilene Galloway, Nuclear Power Satellites: the U.S.S.R. Cosmos 954 and the Canadian claim, 12 Akron L. Rev. 401, 401-415 (1979). [2]Dr. Priyanka Manoj Jawale, Nuclear Power Sources (NPS) In Outer Space –Reviewing Liability Aspect with Special Reference To Kosmos 954/Cosmos 954 Reconnaissance Satellite Accidents, 11 IJASL 141, 129-150 (2021)

[1]Dr. Priyanka Manoj Jawale, Nuclear Power Sources (NPS) In Outer Space –Reviewing Liability Aspect With Special Reference To Kosmos 954/Cosmos 954 Reconnaissance Satellite Accidents, 11 IJASL 141, 129-150 (2021)

[1]Dr. Priyanka Manoj Jawale, Nuclear Power Sources (NPS) In Outer Space –Reviewing Liability Aspect With Special Reference To Kosmos 954/Cosmos 954 Reconnaissance Satellite Accidents, 11 IJASL 141, 129-150 (2021)

[1] UNGA, Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space, (47th Session),

[1] Stephen Gorove, Cosmos 954: Issues of Law and Policy, 6 JOURNAL OF SPACE LAW 138, 137-146 (1978)

[1] S. Neil Hosenball, Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space, 6 JOURNAL OF SPACE LAW (1978). [2]Guss W. Weiss, The Life and Death of Cosmos 954, 22 CIAHISTORICAL REVIEW PROGRAM (1978).

[1]Yury Zaitsev, Nuclear power in space, SPACE DAILY (Aug. 15, 2007), [2] Marissa Newhall, The History of Nuclear Power in Space, ENERGY GOV. SPACE WEEK 2015 (June, 2015),

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