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Implementation of the precautionary and sustainable development principles in nuclear law – A Canadian perspective

Abstract of a dissertation presented to:
University of Montpellier 1
Montpellier, France
December 2009

Prepared by:
Jacques Lavoie
Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada


The precautionary and sustainable development principles have been recognized over the years partly as a result of historical advents and scientific discoveries that increased the world's awareness, understanding and sensitivity caused by the impact of devastating industrial practices on human populations and the environment. Following the tragic accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, the world has become increasingly mindful of the potential impact of major nuclear projects and facilities on the environment and our inherent responsibility as custodians of the natural resources provided by the biosphere on behalf of future generations. The two principles involve complementary objectives given that sustainable development in Nuclear Law may prove difficult to achieve unless a reasonable and precautionary approach is taken from the planning stage, particularly, when faced with scientific uncertainties in regard to the environmental consequences.

The precautionary and sustainable principles have been integrated to a notable extent in the Canadian legislative framework and Canada continues to play a key role at the international and national levels to promote development that takes into consideration both principles. This paper aims to provide an overview of the main issues relating to the application of the precautionary and sustainable development principles in the context of national and international nuclear Law. Despite the fact that it may make sense to most people that states should adopt these principles when dealing with major projects in the nuclear industry, history revealed that it has not been the case in the past and still is not the case in a number of industries and parts of the world.

The precautionary and sustainable development principles have been codified in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. The Act provides the following in its preamble: Whereas the Government of Canada is committed to implementing the precautionary principle that, where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. Along with other principles contained in international instruments, the precautionary and sustainable development principles are relevant from a legal standpoint and should be carefully considered by legislators, the courts, the regulators or policy makers. The proponent of a project should bear the burden of proof to establish that the licensing or commissioning of a nuclear facility or a uranium mine will not cause irreversible damages to the environment or the health of people. This would include all the related environmental issues that should be taken into consideration and managed during the lifecycle of a nuclear facility like a mine or a nuclear reactor from cradle to grave.

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