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 This is the first post in what will be a series (of yet-undetermined length) exploring existing approaches to regulation that seem relevant for thinking about governing AI.

The goal of these posts is to provide a brief overview of a type regulation or a regulatory body so others can understand how they work and glean insights for AI governance. These are no means exhaustive, and I would love for others to dig deeper on any topic within that seems useful or fruitful.

While I would be happy to answer any questions about the content below, to be honest I probably don't know the answer; I'm just a guy who did a bunch Googling in the hopes that someone can gain value from this very high level research.

Thank you to Akash Wasil for his inspiration and guidance in creating this series, and to Jakub Kraus for his invaluable feedback on earlier drafts.


International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been mentioned as a model for a potential AI governance body, most notably in a recent OpenAI blog post. The following is a brief overview of what IAEA is and what it does, with an emphasis on safety standards and regulatory programs that seem potentially relevant for AI.

Basic Facts

  • Established: July 29, 1957
  • Location: headquarters in Vienna, Austria; regional offices in Toronto, Canada and Tokyo, Japan
  • Purpose: founded as the world’s central intergovernmental forum for scientific and technical cooperation in the nuclear field
  • Objective: promote the use of atomic energy for peaceful applications

Organization and Governance

  • General Conference: consists of all 176 Member States
    • Notable non-members: North Korea, Palestine, Somalia, etc.
    • Duties: elects Board of Governors, approves actions and budgets proposed by Board of Governors, etc.
      • Meets once per year, usually in September
  • Board of Governors: consists of 35 Member States, with 10 elected by the outgoing Board and the rest elected by the General Conference
    • Duties: makes financial recommendations to the General Conference, considers applications for membership, approves safety standards, appoints Director-General (with approval of the General Conference)
    • Board generally meets five times per year: in March and June, twice in September (before and after the General Conference), and in November
  • Director General: Chief Executive of the IAEA, responsible for overseeing the administration of IAEA activities, managing external relations with Member States and the UN, policy planning and strategy, etc.

Notable Programs (that seem AI-relevant)

  • Safety Standards: nuclear safety principles, requirements, and recommendations
    • Regulating nuclear safety is a national responsibility: states must manage the safety of their own nuclear facilities, and can do so however they wish, but IAEA standards provide recommended best practices that many states choose to adopt and follow
      • Some intergovernmental organizations also “co-sponsor” and adopt IAEA standards; ex: Safety Fundamentals are co-sponsored by the UN, OECD, WHO, etc.
    • None of the IAEA safety standards are legally binding on Member States; however, the Standards are binding on the IAEA in relation to its own operations and on States in relation to operations assisted by the IAEA
      • The use of the word “required” in the various safety standards only technically applies to the IAEA and IAEA-assisted operations; for national nuclear activities, none of these regulations are “required”
    • IAEA Safety Standards consist of three sets of publications:
    • 1) Safety Fundamentals: a document that establishes the fundamental objective of IAEA safety recommendations and outlines ten principles to guide the creation of safety standards
      • Fundamental safety objective: to protect people and the environment from harmful effects of ionizing radiation
      • Safety principles:
        • Protection must be optimized to provide the highest level of safety that can reasonably be achieved [without limiting the utilization of a facility].
        • Arrangements must be made for emergency preparedness and response for nuclear or radiation incidents.
        • Etc. (ten total)
    • 2) Safety Requirements: practices, protocols, and standards to protect people and the environment from radiation in IAEA facilities and activities
      • 17 total documents, with topics including: Personal Radiation Protection, Management of Radioactive Waste, Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear Emergency, Site Evaluation for Nuclear Facilities, Decommissioning of Facilities, etc.
      • Example - Safety Assessment for Facilities and Activities: describes the process for conducting safety assessments of facilities (power plants, waste facilities, etc.) and activities (producing or transporting radioactive material, etc.)
        • Includes advice on fact gathering and document reviews, on-site visits of nuclear facilities, review of safety infrastructure and accident response protocols, etc.
    • 3) Safety Guides: further recommendations on how to comply with the Safety Requirements for certain facilities or activities
      • Over 100 documents, with topics including: Documentation for Use in Regulating Nuclear Facilities, Classification of Radioactive Waste, Design of the Reactor Core for Nuclear Power Plants, etc.
      • Example - Recruitment, Qualification and Training of Personnel for Nuclear Power Plants: provides recommendations for hiring and training workers at power plants
        • Encourages power plants to emphasize safety knowledge and track record when assessing candidates and use classroom teaching and on the job training for employees
  • IAEA Safeguards: The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) requires all non-nuclear powers to negotiate a safeguards agreement with IAEA promising to fulfill their commitment to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons
    • IAEA verifies each state’s compliance by inspecting nuclear power plants, uranium mines, enrichment facilities, nuclear waste sites
    • See this paper for a detailed overview of IAEA inspections with an emphasis on AI relevance
      • In brief, IAEA inspectors visit nuclear facilities in NPT countries and check that reported aspects of the site (NPT signatories are required to report quantity of U and Pu, floorplans, equipment, etc. at nuclear facilities) are all accounted for, and that no additional/unreported materials or equipment are present
      • IAEA also tracks the movement of U and Pu around the world using tools like cameras and radiation detectors and requiring shipping in tamper-evident containers
  • Emergency Preparedness Review (EPREV) Service: Member States can request the EPREV service to appraise their preparedness for nuclear or radiological emergencies and to help develop emergency response capabilities if necessary
  • Independent Engineering Review of I&C Systems (IERICS): a peer review of instrumentation and control (I&C) design documents, prototype I&C systems, and systems already deployed in operating nuclear power plants; this is applicable at any stage of the life cycle of nuclear power plants and can be requested by organizations in Member States
  • Independent Safety Culture Assessment (ISCA): review of the safety culture of a nuclear facility using document reviews, questionnaires, interviews, on-site observations, and focus groups to identify areas for improvement; available by request of Member State for any nuclear facility
  • Peer Review of Operational Safety Performance Experience (PROSPER): a by-request peer review of the effectiveness of a nuclear power plant’s operational experience feedback process—a protocol for learning from past mistakes and improving safety practices that IAEA recommends each nuclear facility establish
  • Safety Aspects of Long Term Operation (SALTO): a comprehensive safety review—involving on-site visits, observations, and interviews—to make recommendations for the safe long-term operation of nuclear power plants; by request of Member States
  • Technical Safety Review (TSR): Member States can request an evaluation of a nuclear plant’s design safety and accident management and receive recommendations for improvements
  • Global Nuclear Safety and Security Network (GNSSN): a network of Member States and individual experts, with an online platform for sharing nuclear safety and security knowledge and services
    • The website provides limited public access to information and resources
    • Also has a restricted site for national or intergovernmental personnel, requiring official nomination for access
  • Technical Cooperation (TC) Programme: IAEA provides expertise to Member States in implementing nuclear technology to promote development outcomes in health, agriculture, industry, energy, etc.
    • All Member States are eligible for TC support, although the IAEA tends to focus on the needs and priorities of less developed countries
    • TC projects can be national, regional (involving multiple nations near each other), or interregional (involving multiple regional groups)
    • Example projects: establishing a radiotherapy and nuclear medicine center in Mauritania; using food irradiation technology to sterilize food in Southeast Asia, etc.
  • International Nuclear Information System: one of the world’s largest collections of published information on peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology, available to IAEA Member States and other international partners
  • Training Courses: IAEA offers courses on nuclear operations managementnuclear law and policy draftingradiation transport and waste safetyemergency preparedness and response, among others
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