The IAEA Interlude

A train carrying Hindu karsevaks returning from Ayodhya was set on fire in Godhra in Gujarat on the 27th February 2002. This triggered terrible communal riots which lasted for three months. We felt the after effects of the riots closely since a neighbour, a Catholic Healthcare person, would come and tell us the gruesome stories. I was very depressed by the whole situation, including rumours about Government collusion and the callousness of people towards the events.

It was then that I received a call from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna inviting me to take up a position as the Head of its Physics Department. The assignment was for a period of eight months from September 2002. Apparently, an American who was holding that position had decided to leave suddenly. I accepted the offer with alacrity. 

I assembled my wardrobe, considering both the severe winter in Vienna and the sartorial demands of my job (defined as international civil servant), closed our house in Bopal and left for Delhi where my son Joseph was stationed. I was to leave first, settle down and Minnu would join later.

IAEA, a UN Organization, is the world’s foremost forum for scientific and technical cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear technology. It contributes to United Nations’ charter of Sustainable Development. It is the UN’s watchdog to ensure that the member states honour their international legal obligations to use nuclear material and technology for peaceful purposes only. Teams from IAEA had gone to Iraq to search for Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction”.

IAEA came into being in 1957. In the 1970s, the Austrian Government provided a permanent residence called the Vienna International Centre (VIC) on the left bank of the river Danube. The iconic building of VIC on Wagrammerstrasse by the Danube was designed by the Austrian architect Johann Staber.

I was familiar with IAEA as I had many occasions earlier to visit and work there in week-long meetings. The Director of the division under which my section came was Dr. Sood, an expert on Radiation Chemistry, whom I had known from his BARC days.My job was to oversee the established programmes and promote new programmes in Plasma Physics and Fusion Research. Co-ordination of the meetings sponsored by IAEA was part of the assignment. Liaison with agencies of similar interest, attending meetings and conferences and taking care of routine administrative matters were also in my charter.

Memorable meetings include the 19th Fusion Energy Conference held in October 2002 in Lyon, France, where I had to act as the Scientific Secretary. This is a biannual meeting of great heritage dating back to 1961 when the first meeting took place in Salzburg, Austria. The meeting with more than 500 participants reported significant developments in the performance of large fusion experiments, advances in critical technologies and new and innovative concepts. 

Another event I enjoyed was the Workshop on Plasma Physics jointly hosted by IAEA and the International Centre for Theoretical Physics. This was a place I had visited in the 80s for the Plasma Physics Summer School held in November 2002. I also enjoyed a trip to Washington to represent the Agency at the Fifth Symposium on Current Trends in International Fusion Research. This gave me an opportunity to visit my cousin Dr. K. V. George (Thonipurackal, Puthupally) who worked with the US Department of Energy.

The major IAEA event is the General Conference where representatives of the IAEA Member States meet in a regular annual session. The purpose is to consider and approve the IAEA’s  budget and to decide on issues raised by the Board of Governors, the Director General and Member States. With the General Conference, IAEA regularly organizes a Scientific Forum on topics related to nuclear technology and science. The Indian staff in IAEA had an opportunity to meet with Dr. Anil Kakodkar, then Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, during the General Conference. 

The Agency played the role of godfather to the ITER Project through its early design phases. The ITER negotiations were carried out under the auspices of the IAEA. I used my stay at IAEA to gather information on ITER as there were informal discussions in our institute in those days on the pros and cons of being part of the international project to build a thermonuclear fusion reactor. Prof. Kaw was the Chair of the International Fusion Research Council (IFRC) which provided guidelines to the IAEA Secretariat on matters relating to the fusion R&D program.

Commissary patrons prepare for Hurricane Sandy.

IAEA establishment offers shopping facilities to its staff, and the staff of other international organizations based in Vienna. The Commissary offers an international selection of foodstuffs and household items, thus catering to expatriate employees who may purchase familiar items that are not readily available in the host country Austria. 

High profile visitors to VIC were commonplace. I got an opportunity to hear Hans Blix, a former DG, on not finding the weapons of mass destruction allegedly possessed by Iraq. He was the head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission from March 2000 to June 2003. In 2002, the commission began the search in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, but found none.

Responding to the IAEA Director General’s request for ideas for new initiatives, I proposed the concept of ‘Virtual IAEA: a digital history resource base’. I argued that IAEA has no institutional memory as staff members come and go. I described how a retrievable collective institutional memory could be generated by compiling the memoirs of all the people who had an opportunity to work for the Agency. The idea was quite well-received.

My brief stay at IAEA was great for educational and cultural reasons. I discovered closely how high profile international organizations work. I learned how to resolve conflicts in meetings with participants from nations with conflicting ideological and political leanings. I learned at close hand how e-office functions. I had the occasion to meet and make fiends with people from all nationalities. It was a great learning experience.


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