Nuclear reactors and
energy models

By Alan McDonald, IIASA Alumnus (1979-82 and 1997-2000) and member of the IIASA Alumni Advisory Board

Alan, Sue, Walter, Linda and Bill

Alan, Sue, Walter, Linda and Bill

I stumbled on IIASA in 1975. I was 24 and working for General Electric’s Fast Breeder Reactor Department. I was supposed to figure out how safe General Electric should make its new breeder reactor, a type of nuclear reactor (The project later died when Jimmy Carter came to the White House and the uranium price plummeted). We researched what was going on around the world on determining acceptable risks. The best stuff was coming from this place outside Vienna called the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. We didn’t know IIASA was only two years old. We only knew its papers on determining acceptable risks were better than anyone else’s.

In 1977 I look a leave from GE to go to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. In my second year I was a teaching assistant for Howard Raiffa and took his seminar on the art and science of negotiation. After graduation, I asked if I could get a job at IIASA. Perhaps in an administrative capacity, he thought, since I didn’t have a PhD. If I wrote a page about why IIASA should consider me, he might forward it to Laxenburg.

Wolf Häfele hired me for what was then called the Energy Systems Program (ENP). It was 1979, six years after the Arab oil embargo, the creation of OPEC, and an explosion of energy studies in the US and other oil importing countries. All those national studies projected national oil demands exceeding supplies by varying amounts depending on the policies being modeled. Then they labeled the unmet demand “imports.” IIASA was the first to check if all those imports might add up to more than the oil exporters could export, and what might be done about it if they did. In addition, ENP developed the energy supply model MESSAGE, now used in multiple national and international studies. Cesare Marchetti’s logistic model taught humility about dreams of quick policy-driven transitions away from oil. And ENP still had some of the world’s best work on risk acceptance — which had the added benefit of provoking Mike Thompson to analyze the issue through the lens of cultural anthropology and generate a whole new set of useful insights.

I met my wife, Sue, at IIASA. She was in Personnel and, when I arrived, briefed me about leave slips and all the rest. Part way through, she stopped. “You’re not listening,” she said. “If I have questions, I can come back,” said I. I did, and I did.

Two and a half years later we left IIASA, got married and did a 5-month road-trip honeymoon around the US on the theory it might be another 50 years before we were again so unburdened with obligations (right so far). The trip ended in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The US membership in IIASA was being exiled from Washington to Cambridge due to Dick Pearle’s and President Reagan’s animosity. I joined up to pitch IIASA’s virtues to foundations, US corporations and anyone who’d listen in Washington. In pitching IIASA’s virtues, there was a lot to work with.

Now there’s even more.


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Last edited: 05 January 2016

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