For the past 10 years, Andrew Bieniawski has been at the center of one of the most successful and least-known government programs of the 21st century: the U.S. effort to secure the weapons-grade nuclear materials that were scattered around the globe during the Cold War, and that now represent a hair-raising threat in the age of terrorism.
A 25-year veteran of the Energy Department’s atomic weapons programs, Bieniawski has led teams to more than a dozen countries, including Libya and Ukraine, on tension-filled missions to retrieve highly enriched uranium and plutonium. The material they have recovered has been reprocessed and today is fueling reactors that provide electricity across the United States.
Now Bieniawski, 47, has taken his experience and expertise to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonpartisan organization CNN founder Ted Turner established in 2001, after seeing a 60 Minutes report on the dangers posed by “loose nukes” around the world. (Until recently, NTI was the underwriter of the Global Security Newswire, produced by National Journal.)
The group, cochaired by Turner and former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, spurred the government to begin a program to collect weapons-grade materials in 2002.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here,” says Bieniawski, newly installed as vice president for material security and minimization at NTI, which he says shuns the title of think tank. “I consider us a ‘do tank’ — we actually do things,” he says. “We not only do the policy work, but we actually do some of these projects.”
Born in South Africa, Bieniawski moved to the U.S. as a boy, when his father, an engineering professor, took a job at Penn State University. After earning a degree in nuclear engineering from Penn State, Bieniawski went straight to the Energy Department, where in 1989 he ended up in a small office that was working on arms control. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the office began to expand, and Bieniawski was sent on what would be the first of more than 40 trips to Russia to help negotiate an agreement for the U.S. to purchase tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. The terms of the deal were fulfilled just last year, when the U.S. completed the reprocessing of enough material to make 20,000 nuclear weapons, he says.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 — only a month after Bieniawski had moved his family to Moscow, where he headed up a DOE office — the issue of “loose nukes” became a concern for both the U.S. and Russia. That led to the establishment of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative in Washington in 2004, with Bieniawski at the helm.
Under the initiative, which was expanded by President Obama in 2009 when he set a goal of securing “all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years,” the U.S. and Russia cooperated on the removal of loose nukes from 13 countries, starting with sites most at risk.
The recovery missions were often filled with intrigue — and plenty of stress, Bieniawski says. In Ukraine, the pressure was so intense that Bieniawski developed shingles, but he says the removal of nuclear materials from three sites — including one in territory now controlled by separatists — changed the political situation that exists amid the unrest of today; if the material were still there, he says, “it would be a whole different dynamic.” During a mission to remove nuclear materials from Chile, an earthquake forced the team to alter its transport plans overnight; on another, while they were doing a removal from a reactor in Germany, the trucks carrying the nuclear materials were separated from security guards by protesters, making for a nerve-racking trip, Bieniawski says.
All of the missions ended with success, and although there are still loose nukes to be secured in at least a dozen other countries, the most vulnerable sites have been secured, Bieniawski says. “The real message is, if you have the right people and the right team, you can do anything,” he says.
“It takes its toll on you, but you love the mission,” he says. “Your mission is to make the world safe. You go home at night and talk to your kids, and they ask, ‘Hey, Dad, what did you do today?’ ‘Well, I worked on this and made the world safe.’ “
For a long time as I was coming out, I was developing my own identity,” says Angela Peoples. She also was looking for just the right mix of political and social issues to pursue as an activist. After six years in Washington focused on higher-education issues,the 28-year-old has found her opportunity at GetEQUAL, a grassroots group launched in 2010 to advocate on LGBT issues. The group is based in D.C. and has organizers in 12 states. Peoples grew up in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and graduated from Western Michigan University before moving to Washington to work on college- affordability issues for the United States Students Association. Most recently, she spent three years as an analyst on student-loan policies at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She codirects GetEQUAL with Heather Cronk, who has been with the group since its founding. “GetEQUAL speaks to all of our issues,” Peoples says. “We’re building a grassroots movement for a full federal equality bill.”
IN THE TANKS
Not many people are as steeped in the effects of the financial crisis on the housing market as Ed DeMarco, who led the Federal Housing Finance Agency from September 2009 to January of this year. DeMarco’s opposition to principal reductions for underwater homeowners prompted President Obama to re- place him with then-Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina, but DeMarco says he has no second thoughts about his policy stance. A 28-year veteran of federal housing agencies, DeMarco, 54, has become a senior fellow-in-residence at the Milken Institute’s Center for Financial Markets, which promotes expansion of private capital markets. His next order of business is housing finance legislation, DeMarco says. “It is the unfinished business of the financial crisis. I think I bring a technical and institutional background to this set of issues that can be constructive in getting legislation enacted.” DeMarco is optimistic about reform prospects, citing what he sees as a growing consensus around the need to replace taxpayer-backed financing with private capital, and to end the conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Irish-born Abigail Slater, the new vice president of legal and regulatory policy at the Internet Association, which represents Internet service providers ranging from Gilt to Google, doesn’t consider herself “tech savvy.” But she’s well-versed in regulatory issues — and she knows her way around the Web. “On a personal level, I’m a huge natural advocate for the Internet,” she says. “I’ve blogged since 2007.” After growing up in Dublin and earning a law degree at Oxford University, Slater, now 43, went to work for an old, established London firm, Freshfields, practicing antitrust law. The firm sent her to Brussels and Washington, where she met her husband, an Oregonian working on Capitol Hill. Slater then became an attorney for the Federal Trade Commission, where she served several years as an aide to Commissioner Julie Brill. At the Internet Association, she will work on “any number of regulatory issues,” she says, including net neutrality, privacy policies, patent laws, and immigration reform.