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Mohamad Zineddin: The science and culture of nuclear security

Mohamad Zineddin
Mohamad Zineddin joined ORNL in August 2023, bringing to the lab more than 35 years of nuclear security expertise in government, private, and academic sectors. Credit: Genevieve Martin/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Engineering. Security. Education. Leadership. Culture. Martial Arts. 

Martial Arts? Absolutely.

For Mohamad Zineddin, these six interests have coalesced into vital areas of engaged expertise. When he joined Oak Ridge National Laboratory in August 2023, Dr. Z – as he is known to his students, friends, and colleagues – brought more than 35 years in government, private and academic sectors to the lab. As global demand for cleaner power sources continues to grow, Zineddin is certain to apply his professional experience – in science- and engineering-based physical security-by-design, research and development, project management, teaching, consultation, government and industry – to help reduce nuclear risks around the globe.

For decades, Zineddin has conducted extensive, onsite research into the design, construction and implementation of physical security-by-design systems, as well as the impact of leadership and culture on nuclear safety and security. He has gained this expertise while managing large security organizations at both research-based and power-generating nuclear reactors.

In his new role as a distinguished researcher in nuclear and radiological risk management sciences, Zineddin provides expert support for ORNL’s nuclear energy security mission within the National Security Sciences Directorate. His work includes research into physical security-by-design for facilities, physical-security systems and technological innovation. He analyzes threats, vulnerability and risk while providing insider threat mitigation, organizational development, education and training.

A disciplined, highly motivated researcher who is “eager to learn new stuff and try new things,” Zineddin’s passion is “always inspiring and empowering people to understand science and engineering, so they can come up with innovative and creative ideas to improve our lives.” Growing up in Damascus, Syria, he knew from an early age that he would study in America, become a U.S. citizen, and build a life that involved making a positive difference in the world.

Early, intense interest and eventual mastery

A childhood fascination with Bruce Lee’s heroics, Jackie Chan’s comedic physicality, and later, Jet Li’s acrobatics eventually led Zineddin to an “understanding of how you leverage body mechanics and pressure points to subdue a larger opponent.” This interest inspired him to earn a fourth-degree black belt over the course of more than 40 years of dedicated martial arts study.

Later, his engineering interest was sparked in a similar way, through his admiration for architecture and a desire to understand “how great structures were analyzed, designed, and built.” Again, an early but intense interest led Zineddin to pursue a disciplined, comprehensive approach to learning. Working as an undergraduate in Penn State University’s Materials Research Lab, he studied concrete and cementitious materials characterizations. 

“I began my undergraduate studies in designing, manufacturing, and building experiments and prototypes for force protection and material characterization of security systems against military attacks and accidental explosions,” Zineddin said. “I was continuing this research and completing my master’s degree when I was sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct research on how to better design and harden critical infrastructures against terrorist, accidental and man-made attacks.”

Before long, keeping people and places safe became a central mission for Zineddin. Writing his master’s thesis on the results of this graduate research, he included computer simulation and test validation from many of his own related experiments, which led him to simultaneously pursue his doctorate and a full-time position at a manufacturing company near Pittsburgh, where he found himself in charge of all new research and development endeavors for security-oriented products. Soon he was designing these products to increase the security of government courthouses, federal banks and buildings, military installations, embassies, commercial buildings and even airplanes.

Extensive experience

Recruited by national security policy expert Richard A. Clarke to lead various site-security efforts in the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, Zineddin served as a senior principal and subject-matter expert on risk assessment and security design for many large-scale projects, assessing major port entries and many international airports to evaluate their compliance with international security standards. 

While in the UAE, he also conducted security assessments, including blast effects studies, on museums such as the Louvre, Guggenheim and Sheikh Zayed National. He also evaluated university campuses and UAE business-district structures, including high-rise towers, palaces, exhibition centers, various international hotel chains and luxury island retreats. All the while,  Zineddin prioritized leadership development and performance management – by insisting on establishing an exemplary culture of understanding and cooperation – in every workplace, at every level of workforce contribution.

A through-line of education

Although engineering and science sparked his interest and for decades has retained a central role in his career, parallel passions for education (and the cultivation of critical thinking and problem-solving skills) has also remained at the forefront of Zineddin’s work. He has developed and overseen teaching, training and research programs at Penn State, American University in Dubai, the United States Air Force Academy, Khalifa University and Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation in the UAE, all while mentoring, advising and encouraging students at various stages of their educational journeys.

Zineddin’s goal as an educator is for students to gain “an intuitive understanding of how things work, rather than emphasizing formulaic approaches.” He sees teaching as “an opportunity to inspire and empower.” Zineddin seeks to impart “analytical skills, which students can apply to all questions and emerge from classes as scientifically literate, responsible individuals who can critically assess scientific issues.”

Responsibilities of leadership 

If you ask Zineddin about his strong track record of leadership and expertise in engineering and physical security, he invariably emphasizes the importance of people and the culture that sustains the systems the people work within. He believes that a culture of education, respect, transparency, integrity, work ethics and cooperation is just as essential to securing a site as the engineering design and construction itself.

According to Zineddin, respecting every human link in complex processes hinges on “working together to generate common goals, and effectively communicating with and unifying all stakeholders to achieve these goals.” He believes that leaders are defined by values, character, and compassion. Zineddin sees leadership as “a responsibility that should be shared with administration, faculty, and staff,” by collaborating to achieve common goals as a team.

“The people are always the most important part,” Zineddin said. “You can be very good at building something, but if you’re not taking care of the people while building a strong culture, you can start to have problems.”

Going nuclear from scratch

Zineddin’s insights on leadership and culture are hard-earned. Between 2008 and 2023, he was instrumental in establishing an inaugural nuclear energy program in the UAE, an effort that began with zero nuclear capabilities and resulted in four fully operational nuclear reactors. He was also instrumental in establishing the first international and civil security master’s degree program offered in the Emirates, and the first civil infrastructure engineering bachelor’s degree program in the MENA region. Zineddin attributes much of this success to his ability to help create an egalitarian, cooperative security culture that values the input of every contributor.

Working with nuclear facility staff from 67 different nationalities in the UAE, Zineddin established what he calls “Nuclear Security English,” a part of his unique nuclear security culture program designed to provide all staff with a common foundation of language and create unique, onsite cultural expectations, seeking input from all participants, so that everyone had a vested interest in its shared success. The program’s theme was “One team. One goal.” As a result, staff were able to bridge cultural gaps, understand expectations and communicate and work together more openly and effectively, without the constant fear of reprisals and blame that often occur in more authoritarian structures. 

Programs designed and managed by Zineddin also included high school outreach and related educational and recruiting efforts targeting underrepresented groups including women and minorities – raising awareness for future career opportunities involving nuclear facility design, regulation, construction, and operations. As Zineddin puts it, he has “always had a vision to build and lead internationally recognized education, engineering, and security programs that are well-reputed in terms of education, research, scholarship, and service…where students, faculty, and staff can thrive and find fulfillment and success.” This method values the input of every person on the job, giving each of them a voice, an opportunity to be heard, and the ability to contribute to the overall effort. In appreciation for his extraordinary contributions, dedication, commitment and leadership, he was awarded the prestigious Barakah Nuclear Power Plant Excellence Award.

Aspirations for ORNL

Drawing on his decades of experience successfully combining engineering, security, education, leadership and culture to help reduce global nuclear risk, Zineddin aspires to apply his unique expertise here at the lab in a similarly transformative way. His vision is to establish an interdisciplinary center of excellence for nuclear security at ORNL. Combining critical infrastructure assessment and protection, risk mitigation, leadership in nuclear security, education and training, nuclear security culture and resilience strategies and techniques, this center would facilitate collaboration with other research centers, private industry and government organizations. 

As Zineddin seeks opportunities to advocate for this new effort at ORNL, he is committed to seizing the momentum of a resurgent global interest in nuclear as a safer, more reliable, carbon-free energy source. Convinced that partnering with a growing number of domestic and international companies and agencies will help ensure the thoughtful and holistic development of new nuclear projects, as always, Zineddin aims to keep each of these efforts focused on safety and security, fueled by a distinct prioritization of effective training and communication – while building a healthy nuclear safety and security culture. 

The bottom line: culture

Zineddin’s list of career accomplishments is impressive. He has developed training programs on multiple continents and has been key to the establishment of one nation’s entire nuclear industry from scratch. He has managed millions of dollars in research funding and published scores of conference papers, journal articles, research reports, engineering standards and security manuals. He has lectured at conferences and workshops around the world. Through it all, he keeps coming back to culture and leadership as the most important factors in the success of endeavors involving nuclear site and facility safety and security. 

“Culture is who we are and how we think, communicate, believe, act and live…a way of life,” Zineddin said. “The effectiveness of site security is dependent on having a healthy nuclear safety and security culture embedded into all aspects of our day-to-day activities and interfaces with stakeholders.”

Just as his early childhood heroes Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan have broken down cultural barriers for decades, uniting millions of fans across the world in a shared appreciation for their artistic contribution, Dr. Z hopes his approach – establishing a science and engineering-based emphasis on physical security-by-design, and a healthier, safer nuclear security culture, worldwide – will continue to bring many more people together for a common good, with lasting impact. One team. One goal. 

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit – Chris Driver