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International Response to Energy Disasters

All energy projects carry with them some risk to human life. Nuclear disasters have the potential to expose thousands to lethal doses of radiation and the devastating effects can be felt from as far as 1,500 miles away. In the United States, the mortality rate in the oil and gas industry is seven times greater than in any other sector in the country – a testament to the dangers posed by working on offshore rigs. Whilst the international response to nuclear disasters has led to significant policy reforms, little has been done to ensure that the events of the world’s greatest oil and gas accidents will never be repeated.

Nuclear Disasters

The 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the first – and last – terrible exercise of military nuclear power. With almost 215,000 dead, the bombings instilled within all governments a dreadful fear of the potential of nuclear power. President Eisenhower sought to stem that terror with his address to the United Nations in 1953. The ideals articulated in his "Atoms for Peace" speech have been used as the foundation for the Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Since its creation in 1957, the IAEA has sought to ensure that atomic energy is used for the benefit of global peace and prosperity. With 172 Member States, the IAEA provides assistance with the development and research of nuclear technologies for non-military use. Though the IAEA has created a variety of safety standards to mitigate the risk of nuclear accidents, there have been three major disasters to date.

In 1979, a partial nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island power station in Pennsylvania released minor levels of radiation. Though there have been no deaths linked to the accident, states have imposed moratoriums on the use of nuclear power for fear of a similar event.

The Chernobyl Disaster in 1986 took the lives of 32 workers – two from the initial explosion and 29 from the following radiation exposure. As many as 350,000 people were evacuated from their homes and an estimated 4,000 people could die from exposure to radiation from the site. In response to the significant transboundary harm caused by the Chernobyl Disaster, the international community created the Convention on Nuclear Safety to encourage states to maintain a high level of global nuclear safety.

In 2011, the Great Tōhoku Earthquake triggered a tsunami that destroyed the cooling facilities of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in Japan. The subsequent nuclear meltdown released dangerous levels of radiation, rendering the area within a 20-kilometer radius uninhabitable. 81,000 people were evacuated from their homes.

As with Three Mile Island, there have been no deaths linked to this nuclear accident – but it was a "watershed moment" for the IAEA all the same. In response to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the IAEA introduced an "Action Plan on Nuclear Safety". It was designed to revitalise nuclear safety frameworks across the globe by prompting Member States to cooperate with one another. Member States were instructed to review domestic nuclear regulatory bodies to ensure the utmost competence and were advised to undertake national assessments of nuclear power plant designs. The Action Plan also encouraged States to ratify a variety of treaties, including the Convention on Nuclear Safety.

The IAEA’s response to nuclear disasters has been to take steps to ensure that its Member States operate nuclear facilities with heightened safety standards. The international reaction to the greatest disasters in the oil and gas industry has been far less significant.

Oil and Gas Disasters

In 2010, BP’s "Deepwater Horizon" rig exploded, spilling almost five million barrels of oil and killing 11 workers. Oil continued to leak from the well for almost 87 days, spreading across 149,000 square kilometers of the Gulf of Mexico. The damage was so catastrophic that more than ten years after the disaster, work is still being done to restore the Gulf.

Under Section 2702(a) of the Oil Pollution Act 1990 (OPA), BP would have only been required to pay up to US$ 75 million (GBP 54 million) for the spill – a mere fraction of the US$ 65 billion (GBP 47 billion) that the oil company has now spent to cover legal fees and clean-up costs. Thankfully, BP waived the liability cap under the OPA – but this aspect of US law has not changed in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon accident.

Oil and gas disasters are by no means exclusive to the US – the deadliest oil and gas accident in history took place in the United Kingdom. In 1988, a series of four explosions on the oil and gas platform "Piper Alpha", operated by Occidental Petroleum in the North Sea, took the lives of 167 workers.

The first explosion took place on Piper Alpha at 21:55. Two other platforms – "Claymore" and "Tartan" – were connected to Piper Alpha by gas pipelines, as depicted by the above illustration. Workers on Tartan could see Piper Alpha aflame in the distance but continued to pump gas through the pipeline connected to it. Believing that they did not have the authority to stop production, workers on Tartan continued to add fuel to the inferno at Piper Alpha for almost two hours.

Lord Cullen of the Court of Session conducted a Public Inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster. Though his findings were highly critical of the manner in which Occidental Petroleum prepared for emergencies, and of the actions taken by the workers on Tartan, the British government did not commence any form of criminal proceedings.

The Cullen Inquiry made 106 recommendations for changes to the regulation of oil and gas platforms in the UK. These recommendations led to domestic policy reforms that have since been repealed.


After the Deepwater Horizon accident, the world’s largest oil spill, no change to the US OPA was made. After the events of Piper Alpha, the world’s deadliest oil and gas disaster, minor changes to UK law were made before being repealed. On the international scene, no changes to safety regulations were made; it has been the oil and gas industry itself that has developed a safety culture to learn from the lessons of past disasters. In short, the international response by governments to oil and gas accidents has not been sufficient.

No deaths were linked to radiation exposure after the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, but the accident stimulated nuclear policy reforms across the globe. Deepwater Horizon and Piper Alpha claimed almost 200 lives and caused catastrophic environmental damage that has lasted for a decade but there is still no international institution to encourage global cooperation on good industry practices in the oil and gas sector. Governments have instead relied on domestic litigation to hold oil rig operators to account rather than on significant regulatory changes to prevent the repetition of such disasters.

The fear of nuclear energy that led to the creation of the IAEA lingers still to this day, causing governments to take a cautious approach to the threats posed by nuclear power. It is deeply regrettable that the tragedies of the oil and gas industry have not elicited the same response from governments across the globe.


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