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From Schrödinger’s Cat to Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace,” Vienna’s IAEA is At the Center of Global Nuclear Efforts

By Sophie Spiegelberger & Dardis McNamee

From the start, it was remarkable that neutral Vienna was chosen in 1957 for the headquarters of the world’s largest nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Just two years after the State Treaty with the USSR that ended the postwar four-power occupation, Vienna was literally on the border between East and West, surrounded on three sides by communist satellites, the Iron Curtain border with Czechoslovakia less than an hour away.

But it was indeed here, in the ballrooms at the old Grand Hotel on the Ringstraße, that UN member countries began the negotiations of what would be their shared nuclear future, from opposites of the table.  

It had taken just four years since U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” address to the General Assembly in 1953 had called for the creation of an international oversight body to regulate and promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy. That it had happened so quickly was a measure of the shared sense of urgency among the 81 UN members that unanimously approved its enabling statute. 

Its growing importance later influenced the choice of Vienna as the third UN headquarters city after New York and Geneva, and its move to the Vienna International Centre in August 1979.

Now, the IAEA is an indispensable branch of the United Nations with a budget of €370 million in 2019, funded by contributions from its now 171 member states. Over 2,500 employees from more than 100 countries currently work at the IAEA, ranging from nuclear physicists, lab technicians, to IT specialists and policy analysts. Publishing over 200 reports a year, the IAEA monitors “where in the world, which material is involved,” says newly appointed IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. Keeping an eye on this “constant flow of activity,” the agency is able to compile valuable information into a database that is unique in nuclear forensics. 

Peace, Safety & Compliance

Its primary mission involves assisting member states in the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes; As a leading scientific hub for nuclear technology, the agency also conducts research into everything from insect control to plant genetics and the radiation treatment of cancer – all at its eight nuclear research laboratories at Seibersdorf, just an hour outside of Vienna.

However most important today may be the agency role as an instrument of diplomacy, verifying that nuclear materials are not being diverted from peaceful purposes. developing and promoting nuclear safety standards; and verifying compliance under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and other agreements – the key diplomatic role that won the agency, and its then director, Mohammed El Baradei, the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

Then in 2015, when the United States, Iran, the EU and five other countries came together in Vienna to sign the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the so-called “Iran Nuclear Deal” – it fell to the IAEA to certify Iran’s compliance, sending inspectors to Iranian nuclear facilities to monitor their stockpiles of weapons-grade enriched uranium.  That year, the agency also formally aligned with the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a “call to action” adopted unanimously by member states “to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.”

“No one else does what we do” said Director Grossi at the IAEA’s general conference in December.  It is the collective trust in the agency’s “impartiality,” he said, that enables countries to “work together without suspicion.”

Present at the Creation

The IAEA’s current work is the latest chapter in a long and illustrious history of nuclear research in Vienna. At the turn of the 20th century, Vienna was home to many of the key figures working on what was an unfolding revolution in physics, including Erwin Schrödinger and Ludwig Boltzmann, and nuclear physics, including Lise Meitner and Wolfgang Pauli.

A new theoretical framework was needed. Newton’s laws of classical mechanics, which accurately predicted the behavior of large bodies, could not explain a number of unexplainable experimental results with discrete energy. Atom-sized particles seemed to
behave fatally differently from, say, planets or other large objects. Sub-atomic particles such as electrons could be in all possible states at the same time – a phenomenon called “superposition.”Meanwhile Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principal postulated that the more precisely on predicts the position of a particle, the less precisely on can tell the momentum and vice versa. Physicists could not, and in fact still cannot, fully describe quantum behavior of light, a dilemma called the “wave-particle duality.” 

Finally, it was found that the behavior of sub-atomic particles could not be predicted precisely, but rather only their probability, a key difference from the world of Newtonian mechanics. For atomic and sub-atomic levels there are discrete energy states, called quanta, from which particles can jump back and forth in what are called make “quantum leaps.” The sub-atomic world had its own rules, and a new field of “Quantum Physics” came into being to explain them. 

Quantum Leap

Among Quantum Physic’s founding fathers was Vienna physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Born in 1887, Schrödinger attended the Akademisches Gymnasium in Vienna’s first district across from the Konzerthaus before studying mathematics and physics at the University of Vienna. His greatest contribution, the Schrödinger Equation, was a mathematical equation describing the states of quantum mechanic syste in light of their probabilistic nature – quantum mechanics’ most fundamental equation, equivalent to Newton’s F = ma. 

Another Vienna native and graduate of the Akademisches Gymnasium was Lise Meitner. Born in 1878, Meitner went on to study physics at the University of Vienna, specializing in nuclear physics and radiation. Meitner contributed to the development of both peaceful and military uses of nuclear technology, including nuclear reactors (that generate electricity) and nuclear weapons – which she, however, fircely opposed. She was the first woman to become a full professor in Germany at the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm (today the Max-Planck) Institute in Berlin. A Jew, she was stripped of her positions in 1933 and finally left Germany for good in 1938 for Sweden, where she eventually obtained citizenship. 

She did not share the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of nuclear fission with her colleague Otto Hahn, a decision many still consider unjust. In fact, she was nominated for a Nobel 48 times between 1937 and 1948. In the early 20th century, Vienna was home to many of the leading minds in nuclear physics, a new field of science that opened up a world of unprecedented risk and possibilities. Today, all nuclear technology is policed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, in the city where so much of the nuclear story began. 

At the signing ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House in 1957, President Eisenhower reflected on the goals of his “Atoms for Peace” address four years before: “In fact,” he said, “we did no more than crystallize a hope that was developing in many minds in many places … [that] the splitting of the atom may lead to the unifying of the entire divided world.” 

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