Ep 93: Joyce Connery - Board Member, Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board
Q1 - Early International Travels
Bret Kugelmass: How did you get into the nuclear space?
Joyce Connery: When Joyce Connery was in high school, she was planning on being a poet and going to Brown University. On the way to her interview at Brown, Connery missed the exit to Rhode Island and ended up on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. She ended up majoring in international relations and Soviet studies at Tufts University. In 1991, Connery spent a semester studying at St. Petersburg in Russia, right after the coup and right before the Russian ruble crashed. After university, Connery served with the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan, which is in the far out reaches of the Soviet Union and a newly independent country. Joyce Connery grew up in the suburbs of Boston, as part of the working class, and gravitated towards social studies and English in school. After working and saving up money, Connery joined her favorite teacher on a school trip to Russia, which was her first international experience.
Q2 - Titans of Nuclear: Joyce Connery | Peace Corps in Turkmenistan
Bret Kugelmass: What was something you took with you from your time in the Peace Corps?
Joyce Connery: Joyce Connery experienced a cultural adjustment upon returning to the U.S. from her time in Turkmenistan with the Peace Corps. Family and extended family was very important in Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan was having a cultural challenge in that they were trying to revive the Turkmen culture and get out from under the Soviet culture. Joyce Connery taught English to Turkmens at the medical institute, including a woman who was the Minister of Energy at the time and became the ambassador to the United Nations. Some Turkmens had never met an American before, so Connery tried to convey what it means to be an American and what the culture was like. Connery spoke Russian, but many of the students she taught only spoke Turkmen which brought frustration in communication. This experience colored science and technology conversations later on, in that some of her technical friends had a communication barrier and were able to explain what the system did, but couldn’t translate it into why. If you can’t start with the why, you aren’t going to get anybody to buy into your technology. Connery had learned how to communicate across cultures and brought that back to different U.S. cultures.
Q3 - Titans of Nuclear: Joyce Connery | Intro to Nuclear and Nonproliferation
Bret Kugelmass: What did you do after returning from Turkmenistan?
Joyce Connery: Joyce Connery returned to Boston from a couple years with the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan and went back to graduate school at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. In between the first and second year, Connery applied to the State Department for an internship as a political officer. This program sent Connery to Kyrgyzstan, where she wrote her thesis on non-governmental organizations within Kyrgyzstan and some of the economic challenges they were facing as a geographically isolated country. After a summer in Kyrgyzstan, Connery continued to work on her thesis and attended an information seminar hosted by the Department of Energy (DOE) and Argonne National Labs looking for Russian-speaking applicants. The DOE was looking for people to work in nuclear nonproliferation in the former Soviet Union. She accepted a job offer and went to Argonne where she learned about nuclear physics, reactors, weapons, and nuclear in Russian language. The main focus of the group was export controls. Connery was sent to Kazakhstan, one of the largest Central Asian countries that borders Russia. When the Soviet Union broke up, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan were the three places where there were nuclear weapons. The president of Kazakhstan made the decision that he was going to give up his nuclear weapons and give them back to Russia, as he didn’t want his country to be a nuclear state. Kazakhstan’s president has been a champion of nonproliferation since this event.
Q4 - Titans of Nuclear: Joyce Connery | Nuclear Decommissioning in Kazakhstan
Bret Kugelmass: What has Kazakhstan’s relationship with nuclear been like over the years?
Joyce Connery: Joyce Connery went to Kazakhstan doing export controls, but didn’t work at the embassy at the time. She sat at the Kazakh Atomic Energy Commission, similar to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Connery helped people who are licensing technology to connect back to their nuclear national labs and find out how to export items. Connery was an employee of Argonne National Labs, not the State Department, but represented the nonpro community when U.S. delegation would come to town. When the Nunn-Lugar Act took hold, part of the goal was try and dismantle the weapons programs that were in the former Soviet republics, using tax money to create a more peaceful world by preventing proliferation and eliminating some infrastructure. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), which reports of the Department of Defense, was one of the main mechanisms. The Defense Department had a big role in the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program and the Energy Department got involved because of their expertise in material production. DTRA had a presence in Kazakhstan. When other Americans from different parts of the government came through, Connery would go to the airport with the head of contracting services to pick them up and shared the zeitgeist for what was going on in Kazakhstan and offered her translation skills and knowledge of the Kazakhs. A group from Argonne West came to Almaty, Kazakhstan who had a connection to the BN-350 fast reactor, one of which was located in Aktau on the Caspian Sea. This small, sodium-cooled loop reactor was built to create plutonium for Russia’s nuclear weapons. After the break of the Soviet Union, this plant had 2 metric tons of plutonium that was 12 nautical miles from Iran with no security. The DOE had a big program to secure and repackage that material. The U.S. wanted to get rid of the reactor and the Kazakhstanis, champions of nonproliferation, agreed. The challenge was to irreversibly shut the reactor down. The team at Idaho National Labs were excited for the technical challenge and worked together with Congress, the Russians (the design agency came from Russia), and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to create a decommissioning plan. Connery was hired to stay an extra year to be an on-the-ground liaison during the shutdown and to help them sell the plan to Congress.
Q5 - Titans of Nuclear: Joyce Connery | Nuclear Safety and Security
Bret Kugelmass: How did you get involved in the 123 agreements under the Bush administration?
Joyce Connery: After 9/11, it was all hands on deck for people involved in nonproliferation and Joyce Connery was working on securing small research reactors. She started to do some work on radiological sources, based on her past experience in Tajikistan working with IAEA to help understand how to look for orphaned sources. Before 9/11, nobody was looking at it as a security threat, only a safety threat. Connery worked with the materials protection and accounting program at the Department of Energy, which was bilateral work with Russia to secure their facilities. As a special assistant, Connery worked with the U.S. and Russia to create a strategic plan, sustainability plan, and a best practices program. The Bush administration approached the topic differently than the Obama administration, in that they did not want to go through the IAEA and created a global initiative to combat nuclear terrorism. Connery was asked to join the National Security Council on the North Korea portfolio. North Korea has a very specific nuclear nonproliferation problem involving an ongoing geopolitical conversation. She felt it was not the best match for her experience. Eight months later, she interviewed for the counterproliferation portfolio with the National Security Council. The job required coordination among the interagency to come up with policy options on specific issues, including 123 agreements and the IAEA's Additional Protocol. The IAEA has agreements for safeguards with countries to make sure their nuclear programs are not for weapons use and the Additional Protocol allows them to visit and look for fuel cycle activities outside of those parameters.
Q6 - Titans of Nuclear: Joyce Connery | Team USA Approach to Nuclear
Bret Kugelmass: What is Team USA?
Joyce Connery: After working in the Bush administration, Joyce Connery transitioned to the Obama administration and worked on the nuclear security summit. She returned to the Department of Energy as the advisor to the Deputy Secretary of Energy for all things nuclear. Connery was there for Fukushima, which showed a shift in nuclear at the time. The Obama administration had been fairly friendly towards nuclear, but after Fukushima, people couldn't distinguish the headlines with the number of people killed and associated it with the Fukushima meltdown. The most positive aspect of that tragedy was how it brought multiple countries together. At one point, Japan was going to pass a law against all nuclear. They shut it all down and slowly brought nuclear back. In the U.S., the DOE and Nuclear Regulatory Commission started speaking to the American public. Nobody in the National Council of Economic Advisors energy group was monitoring nuclear, so Joyce Connery was put in the role. She decided to focus on international safety, due to pushback post-Fukushima, and worked with the Deputy Assistant Secretary to name an ambassador for the International Conference on Safety, giving the U.S. an equal voice in this setting. Connery also focused on the Team USA concept, recognizing that the competitive advantage France and Russia had was they had government backing, were vertically integrated, and could take care of nuclear from beginning to end. In the U.S., reactor technology vendors acted as a technology vendor and builders and financiers needed to be found. The government cannot dictate how the commercial sector works, but Connery took lessons learned from Kazakhstan where she witnessed multiple different U.S. organizations having different conversations with Kazakh leaders. Nuclear energy at the Department of Energy had some R&D resources and offered international cooperation. The Department of Commerce had the ability to connect companies to opportunities overseas. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has a small international program where they can provide assistance to an international regulator and Export-Import (EXIM) Bank was able to offer some services. Connery established some policy trade missions which combined companies and representatives from all of the development agencies to talk internationally about what they could offer and tried to find the best match.
Q7 - Titans of Nuclear: Joyce Connery | Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board
Bret Kugelmass: How were you appointed chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board?
Joyce Connery: While Joyce Connery was working for the National Security Council (NSC), the Presidential Personnel Office (PPO) from the White House called her to bring her policy background and experience to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which is a Senate-confirmed position. Connery left the NSC in June 2015 and spent some time in nuclear energy while waiting for her nomination to get approved, trying to avoid a conflict of interest with Defense project work. Connery went to the Armed Services Committee to sit in on hearing about the Iran deal and the late Senator John McCain called for a quorum to get her civilian nomination to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. When the Trump administration came in, Connery was flipped from chairman to board member so they could fill the position with a Republican.
Q8 - Titans of Nuclear: Joyce Connery | Keys to Nuclear Success
Bret Kugelmass: Where do you see the nuclear space and nuclear energy going?
Joyce Connery: Folks in the nuclear space have a tendency to talk to each other about stuff they already know. Because she has experience in nonproliferation, safety, energy, and deterrence in nuclear, Joyce Connery sees great conductivity and recognizes that it does the nuclear space no good to operate separately. There are synergies in how to get nuclear qualified materials, do quality assurance, and to get a supply chain that you can trust, which are all things that the nuclear weapons program and advanced reactors both need. The advances made in these spaces have multiple applications that are in the best interest for the country. Connery sees effects of climate change causing problems in the international space that could lead to tension, conflict, and nuclear challenges. There must be a way to get government, industry, communities, and Wall Street all working together to have a conversation about why we need nuclear. Industry and government tend to think in very short terms. The breakthrough to nuclear is thinking in bigger chunks of time and not worrying about the bottom line, but about the future.