One of the greatest potential national security risks is that the flawed protection of Russian nuclear facilities might allow dangerous materials to get into the wrong hands. For more than a year, U.S. Department of Energy officials had been in negotiations to shore up safety measures around these facilities, but talks had reached an impasse. One would reasonably expect that it would take the skillful efforts of some of our most seasoned diplomats to break the logjam. But at the end of the day, it was the talent of 28-year-old Nicole Nelson-Jean, not the tenure of a more veteran negotiator, that got the job done.
One year after joining the Department of Energy, Nelson-Jean spearheaded negotiations between four U.S. and Russian agencies to complete a previously stalled agreement between DOE and the Russian Ministry of Defense to enhance the security of Russia’s nuclear materials and weapons. As the youngest and only female program manager on the mission, Nicole was openly told by her supervisor, with no malice intent, that she may not be accepted by her Russian military counterparts initially because of her age, gender, and ethnicity (African-American). Nelson-Jean’s talents not only allowed her to easily overcome any skeptical preconceptions on the part of the Russians, but also enabled her to lead a delegation of U.S. security specialists and engineers to the Arctic Circle to build a multimillion dollar training and service center for nuclear material and weapons security.
Nelson-Jean’s follow-up work after this summit has proven to be as important as the pact itself. Springing from this agreement, construction has begun on the Kola Technical Center in Murmansk, Russia—the first center of its kind. Nelson-Jean worked with the Russian Navy and Russian vendors and contractors side by side to develop training programs and construction schedules for the Center. This facility will help ensure that millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars will effectively secure Russian military nuclear weapons and materials.
What is so remarkable about Nelson-Jean’s work on nuclear security in Russia is simply her opening act. Two years ago, and just 30 years young, she was appointed to be the Director of the Energy Department’s Asia Office in Tokyo, where she facilitates DOE’s entire portfolio of work in Asia. She also carries the diplomatic title of Energy Attaché to the U.S. Ambassador of Japan.
She has also served as the Chair of DOE National Nuclear Security Administration’s Diversity Council. Recognizing that the agency had to be prepared to meet the challenges of an aging federal workforce, she drafted the Office’s first Workforce Transition Plan and developed a needs assessment.
The Department of Energy is clearly stronger today thanks to the contributions of Nicole Nelson-Jean, but it is clear that the contributions of this remarkable young talent will continue to benefit the Department and our nation for years to come.
This medalist was the recipient of the Call to Service Medal, which was updated to the Emerging Leaders Medal in 2020.