This is one in a series of profiles on the 2012 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists. The awards, presented by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, recognize outstanding federal employees whose important, behind-the-scenes work is advancing the health, safety and well-being of Americans and are among the most prestigious honors given to civil servants. This profile features a finalist for the National Security and International Affairs medal, Joyce Connery, director for Nuclear Energy Policy at the National Security Council in Washington, D.C.
A summit of 50 world leaders hosted by President Obama in 2010 resulted in important steps to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear materials such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium that could be used to make radiological bombs.
By the spring of 2012, about 90 percent of the commitments made by the participants at the summit had been fulfilled. Eight countries disposed of some 480 kilograms of weapons grade uranium, including Ukraine, Serbia, Belarus, Romania, the Czech Republic and Kazakhstan.
Summit attendees also improved nuclear security standards, brought international agreements into force and shared best practices.
While the president and other world leaders took center stage during the Washington D.C. summit, Joyce Connery, working with the White House National Security Council (NSC), played a critical behind-the-scenes role in the successful outcome.
Starting a year before the summit, Connery helped lay the groundwork for the meetings, establish the agenda and devise strategies that would bring the diverse parties together.
“She did all the hard work to get the nuclear security summit organized, and she worked with other countries to secure concrete actions,” said Gary Samore, the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and terrorism.
Daniel Poneman, deputy secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE), said Connery combined technical knowledge with an ability to create relationships and develop trust that led to important results.
“She co-authored the documents that became the basis for the summit communiqué that underscored the participants’ universal commitment to securing nuclear materials and preventing the illicit trafficking in nuclear materials,” said Poneman.
Connery, a DOE employee, was detailed to the NSC staff in 2009 to help organize the nuclear summit, and has since been sent back on assignment to the White House to continue to work on nuclear issues. During the time leading up to the summit, she coordinated activities with the intelligence community, the Departments of State, Defense and Energy, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and provided briefing materials to the president.
She established regional working groups to develop plans for addressing country-specific vulnerabilities across the globe, worked over many months leading up to the summit to support hundreds of official visits and meetings, developed and maintained dialogues on key issues among the different delegations, and conveyed to them that their concerns were being heard.
U.S. officials said the fulfillment of 90 percent of the voluntary summit commitments resulted in the reduction of vast amounts of highly enriched uranium and a series of anti-smuggling initiatives.
Connery said it was critical to get the heads of state together to focus on the need to secure nuclear material, and to publicly go on record detailing what they would do to advance the cause. At least four terror groups, including al-Qaida, have expressed a determination to obtain a nuclear weapon.
“When we held the summit, we helped break logjams and develop relationships with a cadre of people with whom we were able to communicate on a regular basis,” said Connery.
While there were many technical details to master and geo-political issues at stake, Connery said a straightforward message was conveyed that seemed to resonate regarding nuclear materials: “If you don’t need it, get rid of it; if you do have it, you need to protect it; and if you can’t protect it, you need to ask for help.”
One of the most significant aspects of the gathering was the decision to ask each delegation to make specific policy commitments that they would be able to accomplish within two years to further global nuclear security.
“We asked each country to publicly commit to or to start working on a major initiative such as repatriating uranium or downgrading research reactors to more secure material,” said Thomas D’Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Connery negotiated and tracked each of these promises to make sure that the summit generated meaningful consequences for the international community.
“She is very smart and very good at working with people,” said Samore. “People respect her for having genuine passion for the issue.”
Connery said the summit planning, execution and follow-up took a tremendous amount of time, energy and resolve, but was a “high point of my career.”
“We had a year to put together what ended up being a historic summit,” said Connery. “It has done a lot to rid the world of big scary things that you don’t want to think about.”
D’Agostino said the summit presented tremendous challenges that resulted in forward progress in a very important and difficult international arena.
“This initiative would not have happened without Joyce’s involvement, her energy and her expertise,” said D’Agostino.