The first time I came to Vienna I was seven years old. My mother and I came to visit family for Spring Break. My distant cousin was working at the IAEA at the time and we got to stay at his family’s beautiful flat. We watched the film Amadeus, visited the Hundertwasser Museum and I spent several hours carefully drawing portraits of their family dog. After encountering all of the beauty of the city and seeing my first Andy Warhol print I decided that I too was an artist, and quite literally have defined myself with that title ever since.
By some miracle, I even have a picture of my seven-year-old self on the day I decided, “I am an artist.” at the Hundertwasser Haus in Vienna.
This week I came back to Vienna for the first time in over 20 years. It was a really cool “full circle” moment. However, over the past few weeks of traveling and meeting new people, I’ve had to talk a lot about PopAtomic Studios, the Nuclear Literacy Project and my role in the organization- and I’ve realized that less and less of what I do on a daily basis is making art. Interestingly, I still find myself clinging to that identity.
When I arrived at the IAEA this morning, I found that I was not the only one struggling with identity issues.
The timing of my visit worked out very favorably in that I was able to sit in on a presentation designed for about 150 undergraduate students (mostly Political Science majors) from all over Europe. Essentially, I got to see how this premiere nuclear agency conducts educational outreach for young people. I was impressed. The presentation was age appropriate; it wasn’t too long or too technical. The IAEA Press Officer leading the presentation was animated and enthusiastic. All of the students remained as engaged as you could expect from a group of college students- they even had really thoughtful questions at the end.
During the presentation I heard a confirmation what I’d just heard during a talk at the PIME conference just last week- that the IAEA is more than a watchdog organization. And today I got to see firsthand what that really means.
Simply put, the IAEA does many, many things in addition to being an International “watchdog.” Although Safeguards & Nonproliferation are the “newsy” part of the agency’s mission, and therefore what the public tends to hear about the most, they also have two other key areas of work: Science & Technology and Safety & Security.
The IAEA is a service-based member organization, with 159 countries accounting for its membership. In their work in Science & Technology, they promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology. So they aren’t promoting the technology itself, but rather the peaceful, safe and secure use of the technology should a member country decide to pursue it. Additionally the Safety & Security sector of the organization promotes the safe use of the technology- mainly best practices for avoiding accidents and responding if and when things go wrong. That said, the promotion of safe practices ≠ authority to enforce. The IAEA is not the nuclear police. They work to identify best practices among member countries and make recommendations to which members can take or leave. In the end, the implementation of safety practices falls squarely on the countries themselves, which is something I honestly didn’t fully understand until today.
Some of the other lesser-known areas of work in the Science & Technology department (which, again I am just learning about) include assisting developing nations in acquiring medical equipment and training for medical diagnostics and treatments, including cancer treatment. In the Western word it is easy to take for granted that if we fall ill, there are plenty of facilities with advanced technologies and trained professionals to help us. In Tanzania there are only about three machines capable of delivering radiation as a cancer treatment for a population of 40 million. For comparison, in the U.S. we have more than one of these machines for every 500,000 people.
Additionally, the IAEA is engaged in work using radiation in agriculture. From the irradiation of food to the sterilization of insects, they are finding ways to support both developed and developing countries in the use of nuclear technologies for increasing food safety and reducing hunger. As an agency of the United Nations, there is a fundamental dedication to serving the well being of all of the world’s citizens. I found this diplomatic mindset to be very appealing.
The reason I started supporting nuclear education is because there is so much potential to use this technology to do good. This understanding underlies much of the work of the IAEA- everything is framed in terms of maximizing the human and environmental benefits, while minimizing risks. Whether you like them or not, nuclear technologies exist and countries will continue using them. And again, there are no “nuclear police.” Therefore, the IAEA’s role in facilitating international cooperation, collaboration and information sharing is paramount. Diplomacy is the best tool we have in ensuring that nuclear technologies are used responsibly and for the benefit of mankind.
Maybe I got lucky because I happened to visit on the first sunny day in a month (which everyone was very excited about). Or because the Secretary General and U.S. Ambassador both happened to be in the building for a meeting- they had the red carpet rolled out and everything! But, for me visiting the IAEA was inspiring. I was amazed at the levels of professionalism and kindness shown by everyone I encountered. And needless to say, these folks are really good at what they do; the best of the best.
This experience actually helped me work through my own little identity crisis by reminding me that I do not have to be defined by one part of what I do. So much of my work involves revealing the nuanced, dynamic, human side of organizations, companies and individuals in the nuclear sector. I owe myself that same respect in granting equal importance to the fact that in addition to being an artist, I am a nonprofit manger, a community liaison and an educator. And now, I feel inspired to work towards building my skills as a conflict manager and perhaps one day I will even be able to count myself as a diplomat. For the second time, Vienna has proved to be so inspiring that here I am, declaring big dreams!
A huge thank you to Greg Webb, John Rowat, Mark Harper, Debbie Gilley and Ayhan Evrensel- I very much appreciate you each taking the time to show me around, answer my endless stream of questions and listen to my, um, slightly nontraditional ideas. Also a big thank you to Amelia Frahm for providing me with several copies of her children’s book, Nuclear Energy to share with people throughout my travels- one of the copies has been given to the IAEA library.