Transboundary Radiation Pollution

With reference to an article by Helmut (2011) from the Fordham Environmental Law Review, I will be touching on the issue of transboundary radiation pollution. 

“An accident at a nuclear power plant could release highly radioactive materials into the environment. Since radioactive pollution can travel through the air, infiltrate waterways, or disperse into the sea, opportunities abound for persons of one state to suffer radiation damage caused by activities of persons of another state.”

This quote reminds us that it is not only water (bodies), but also air (the atmosphere) that can be potential transportation mechanisms for radioactive materials. As such, sources of radiation pollution can be transboundary.

  • According to Helmut (2011), the explosion at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl created a radioactive cloud. Because of the winds at the time of the release, the cloud quickly moved to the west. Only two days later the cloud had reached West Germany.
  • Research from Yablokov and Nesterenko (2009) also reveal that radioactive contamination from Chernobyl spread over 40% of Europe, including Austria, Finland and Sweden etc.

In the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan, dust particles contaminated with radioactive caesium were found more than 100 miles from the Fukushima site, and could be detected on the U.S. West Coast (Kaltofen, 2011).

As such, international or transboundary legal systems are crucial in enabling legal protection. A conference held by the NUS Centre for International Law (CIL) in February 2014 explored several of these issues. The international conference titled “Transboundary Pollution: Evolving Issues of International Law and Policy” was attended by more than 90 delegates from around the world.

One main issue highlighted in addressing transboundary pollution is to have some degree of clarity on the applicable legal requirements and then attempt to identify the states which are responsible, and hold them responsible for the acts. Radiation pollution was one of the topics discussed in the conference. It was encouraged that state implement existing international agreements and commitments to facilitate international cooperation and capacity building.

In the case of the Chernobyl disaster however, Helmut (2011) reveals that none of the affected states brought an action based on public international law for recovery, leaving the citizens virtually without any legal recourse.

Till date, there are limited international agreements catering to transboundary radiation pollution. Perhaps, larger and more general issues such as transboundary air and water pollution take precedence. It is also indeed true that tragic disasters such as those of Chernobyl and Fukushima are simply unfortunate and relatively rare in occurrence, which may explain the lack of emphasis and pressure on the part of governments to put in place provisions.

Thanks for reading!



Heiss, H. J. (2011). Legal Protection Against Transboundary Radiation Pollution: A Treaty Proposal . Fordham Environmental Law Review , 4 (2), 167-194.

Yablokov, A. V., & Nesterenko, V. B. (2009). 1. Chernobyl Contamination Through Time and Space. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1181, 5-30. doi:

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