2023 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Zachary Johnson 

Played pivotal role in responding to radiological threats caused by the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as securing the relocation of Department of Energy partners in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover in August 2021.

When Russian troops attacked and occupied Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine in early March of 2022, U.S. officials feared the worst – a massive radiation leak that could threaten the lives of tens of thousands of people. 

To address the threat of radiological release from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant or other nuclear facilities in Ukraine, Zachary Johnson, a foreign affairs specialist with the National Nuclear Safety Administration, led a team of scientists, engineers and logisticians who deployed  radiation sensors and other emergency response equipment to critical locations in Ukraine.  

The sensors  provided real-time information about whether any significant release of radiation had occurred. 

Johnson was able to move quickly because of the relationships he had built with foreign partners in the region and the cadre of  contractor support staff that he had worked to shepherd to safe areas just weeks before the Russian invasion.  

Guarding against a nuclear disaster  

“Zak coordinated the supply of equipment and technology needed to ensure the safety and security of nuclear and radiological materials and facilities while the Ukrainian nuclear power plants were under siege at a time of war,” said Kasia Mendelsohn, NNSA’s principal deputy administrator. 

“He had contacts with operators and regulators in the region, and received daily reports to determine if there was damage and what was needed in terms of support,” she said. “He helped us to vet those requests through the interagency process, and he briefed congressional committees and senior leaders.”  

Andrew Vogt, director of NNSA’s Office off Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence, said Johnson was the “lynchpin” of the team that provided key insights into what was happening at the nuclear facilities in Ukraine, both at Zaporizhzhia and at the highly contaminated and inactive Chernobyl nuclear site. 

“There was so much uncertainty and misinformation,“ Vogt said. “Zak was able to reach out to his contacts in the region and determine what was happening regarding risks to energy infrastructure, nuclear power and radioactive storage sites. His leadership resulted in exceptionally fast deployment of assistance for security and safety.”  

Protecting Afghan allies from the Taliban and saving lives 

Months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Johnson also played a critical leadership role in another tense, high-stakes foreign policy crisis – the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan following the chaotic withdrawal of American troops from that war-torn country in August 2021. For Johnson, this meant securing the safety of hundreds of Department of Energy partners and their families.  

“These individuals faced persecution and threats to their lives,” Vogt said. “Zak quickly assembled a team to support these individuals at safe houses, including providing food, water and clothing. He helped these individuals and their families with evacuation and eventually relocation.’’ 

“Zak led these efforts 24/7 and worked with the State Department to get safe passage for these individuals,” Mendelsohn said. “He literally saved lives.”  

Johnson said both the Ukrainian and Afghanistan experiences were “incredibly challenging and emotionally exhausting,” with many “tense moments” and long days and nights. But he added that it has been “an incredible and rewarding honor” to help so many people and “contribute to U.S. security and nonproliferation.”