Safeguarding the Nuclear Arms of the World
by Judy Cabassa Tart ’78
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is a part of the U.S. Department of Energy, and is responsible for the management and security of the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, nuclear nonproliferation, and naval reactor programs. It also responds to nuclear and radiological emergencies in the United States and abroad. As a foreign affairs specialist working on special initiatives for the Office of Global Security Engagement and Cooperation (GSEC) within the larger Office of Nonproliferation and International Security, Margot Mininni ’73 has responsibilities that range from engagement of former weapons of mass destruction (WMD) scientists in Libya and Iraq, to cooperating with Russia on nuclear safeguards under the bilateral U.S. Russia Presidential Committee, and supporting GSEC’s contribution to President Obama’s call for more science and technology collaboration in Muslim majority countries through the Cairo Initiative.
While many Trinity graduates point to their professors or classroom discussions as the guide path to a career involving international or government service, Mininni might also have gotten her travel bug from her childhood as an Air Force brat. Whatever the origin, her career has been filled with challenges, excitement, travel and service to country, beginning with the U.S. Exhibits program of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and, since 1998, with the Department of Energy (DOE) and more specifically with the NNSA.
“My time at Trinity corresponded to student marches and disenchantment with the government over the Vietnam War, then Watergate,” says Mininni. “Many said this was a turning point when Trinity women switched from pouring tea to protesting, but many key figures in government, labor, politics, medicine and journalism graduated from Trinity in the forties, fifties and sixties. So that tells you there was always a striving for excellence and achievement. The fact that we felt that with hard work and study we could do anything helped us compete and forged leadership qualities, no matter what the era. We were always encouraged to follow our curiosity and to be creative in our approach to issues of the day or our research. The women professors including the Sisters of Notre Dame remain role models for me in their confidence, expertise and grace. The sisters were not only hardworking and learned, but embodied the ethic of social justice so key to U.S. Catholic teaching. The honor code we observed there fortified a sense of honesty and integrity that has helped me navigate challenges to those values and be true to them.”
Mininni is quick to clarify that despite the NNSA’s reputation as a scientific-technical entity, she is not a technical specialist. Rather, her expertise lies in project oversight and the building of international relations through “scientist engagement, capacity-building training and project start-up” as it relates to special agreements with other countries. Prior to joining the DOE, her work involved nongovernmental organization development in central Asia. She logged a great deal of time in the “-stan” countries at a time when they were just beginning to enter the American consciousness, and developed her expertise on Russia and the former Soviet Union through the 1990s. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the eventual downsizing of Russian nuclear programs, Mininni worked to implement scientist engagement projects in Russia’s closed nuclear cities. These involved scientists previously involved in weapons of mass destruction programs as they transitioned to civilian scientific work and shifted their focus to safeguards and the harnessing of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
Such a career has challenges and rewards, both of which Mininni gladly shares with TRINITY readers. She notes, “Writing a background briefing for an upcoming secretary of energy trip, answering an inquiry from Congress, conference calls with our national laboratory project teams and travel abroad to discuss agreements and implement programs… there are many demands to juggle, but the hours fly by.” Because of the sensitive nature of her work, it is important to prioritize the critical issues and stay current with technical concepts. Most rewarding for her is the opportunity to work with the scientists of many nations, “seeing the impact of programs on their lives, being part of an organization whose work is so important to our national security.”
She muses about the changes since September 11, noting that before that milestone the United States was predominantly concerned about the possibility of “a rogue nation or terrorists trying to buy or steal a nuclear device to use as a bargaining chip to gain status or concessions.” Now the fear is that a terrorist who secures a nuclear weapon will use it. With this reality came a redoubling of nonproliferation efforts and the race to secure and safeguard material, technology and expertise.
“I feel fortunate and honored that I got to participate in programs that were critical to ending the Cold War and are helping to build a new post-Cold War world. People underestimate the role they can play [in government work] and what a front-row seat to history they can have as part of government service.”