Does this look like fun or what? I’m standing and laughing with the Sillamäe International Expert Reference Group on the roof of the processing building at the Silmet plant, Estonia, January 1998.
One of the great perks of being a scientist is being able to collaborate with people in other countries. You get to travel and learn things you would never think of at home. Or you get to host someone who is discovering your country for the first time. Always cool, always eye-opening.
It’s foreign travel with a purpose: you are working with someone to make something happen, from getting a paper published to eliminating one more route to clandestine nuclear weapons. As I write this, I realize I’ve gotten spoiled by it; I have a hard time thinking about traveling to another country without that kind of purpose. I went to Rome in June, and I enjoyed it, but it’s not as exhilarating as, say, working towards cleaning up plutonium in Kazakhstan.
There are great possibilities, even requirements, for international collaboration in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Lucky students and established scientists will be going to Iran or hosting Iranian students and scientists if these collaborations are established. Their lives will be changed.
Collaborations among many nations have been a practice of the IAEA since its founding in the 1950s. That will continue with Iran (Preamble xiii). Annex III describes the many ways Iranian scientists and others might collaborate. Annex I describes how they must collaborate.
Fordow will be converted to an international nuclear, physics, and technology center (Nuclear, A.6). There will also be international collaboration on the redesign of the Arak nuclear reactor (Nuclear, B.8). Iran will work with other countries on fuel for future light water reactors (Nuclear, B.9).
Annexes III and I go into more detail on these collaborations. Much of Annex III is consistent with IAEA technical cooperation practices and nothing new. More specifically, the E3/EU3+3/P5+1 countries agree to cooperate with Iran in developing modern light water reactors (Annex III, B.4). This collaboration would probably be heavier on the industrial side than the academic, although both are likely to be involved, as well as the national laboratories of the various countries. Light water reactors are the workhorses of the nuclear power industry. Iran’s Bushehr reactor is a light water reactor. A great deal of research is now going into making those reactors safer. New light water reactors are of a design known as Generation III, and Generation IVs are on the drawing board. Those reactors incorporate features that, for one example, would make them less vulnerable to an aircraft crash.
Section B.5 of Annex III says that an international partnership will be established to redesign the Arak reactor to 1) run it at 20 MW rather than 40; 2) modernize the design; 3) design it so that it produces much less plutonium than the original design would; 4) redirect its operation to producing radioisotopes. This section refers back to Annex I, Section B, which gives the objectives for the redesign of the reactor. An attachment to Annex I gives a number of technical specifications to which the reactor will be redesigned. The technical teams supporting the negotiators have put a lot of work into this.
A working group of Iran plus E3/EU3+3/P5+1 participants will be formed to oversee and approve the design. Final approval will be by the Joint Commission (B.5). Participants in the working group are likely to come from government laboratories, with industry and academia possible. There may be opportunities for post-docs and graduate students to contribute. If the working group requires a lot of formality, there will be less interaction. If not, much emailing and Skyping will take place. Some contributors may be able to visit another country for periods of weeks or months. There will be a great celebration when the design is finished and certified.
Potentially the coolest opportunity for collaboration will be at Fordow, which is to be turned into an international research center (JCPOA, Nuclear A.6). Because it’s underground, it’s shielded from things like light and cosmic rays, so it’s ideal for many kinds of physics experiments. Fordow will also have centrifuges for research into separation of stable isotopes. From a scientific viewpoint, the benefit of being underground also requires that radioactive isotopes not be allowed; that is part of the JCPOA requirement as well. A center like this will definitely include graduate students and post-docs, along with professors and scientists from government laboratories. They will plan and execute experiments together. The students will party over kebabs and some sort of beverage. Lifelong friends will be made.
Nuclear safety, safeguards, and security are all commonly dealt with via the IAEA and through bilateral exchanges, so Annex III, Section D, is nothing extraordinary. Personnel from the US national laboratories are constantly traveling to give short courses in these subjects, and practitioners from other countries come here. Other countries share expertise similarly. A notable multilateral example was Japan’s reorganization of its regulatory agency after the Fukushima accident, which was aided by the IAEA and a number of countries. Nuclear medicine, facility decommissioning, and the other topics mentioned are addressed similarly.
These exchanges serve many functions and have many outcomes. They build trust as individuals work together. Some of the individuals will be strongly moved. There will be fun, but also misunderstandings and arguments. Some will learn or improve a new language. Some will marry partners from another country. There will be visa mixups. Some will be in traffic accidents. All will learn something. Here’s the story of one Iranian scholar’s trip to America and Walden Pond.
The benefits go beyond the individual. Oversight of the Arak redesign is obvious: many eyes, many brains will make sure that the design is safe and not oriented toward nuclear weapons. There will be many eyes at Fordow. Students are insatiably curious. Iranian scientists will be kept busy on projects that do not involve nuclear weapons design, as was done for Russian scientists through the International Science and Technology Center. Experimental detectors will register the presence of radioactive materials that interfere with what the experimenters want to detect. Strange goings-on are likely to be noticed. Scientists might notice that a colleague seems a bit too knowledgeable about…something. And the Iranians are aware that they are being seen, so if they are interested in making nuclear weapons, they must think about this group of eyes added to the official IAEA monitoring.
Might they see it as a possibility for recruiting spies? They might. But with that comes another possibility of being caught. Another downside is that the governments of the countries involved are going to have to make money available for the projects. Industry should be expected to contribute something, although they like to get grants too. Details will have to be worked out in national legislatures, which haven’t been too generous with science funding lately. And in the United States: OMG, what if the money benefits Iran somehow? That kind of thing kept coming up relative to collaborations with the post-Soviet states.
My experiences working with Estonians and Kazakhstanis are high points in my life. With any luck, in twenty years another generation will be saying that about their interactions in Iran.